Courage to Face Death

I Thessalonians 4:13-18

Since the beginning of time, human beings have fought for survival. We run from death as the final enemy. Each of us, who draws breath, wants to fight to stay alive. Our lives matter. They have value. We don’t want to die.

I read a psychology book in college written by Ernest Becker called The Denial of Death. It poignantly describes how we, as human beings, run from the truth of our own mortality. We deny the profound truth that someday we will all breathe our last. How, then, do we have the courage and the hope to face this truth? Some philosophers have said until we face the truth of our own dying, we can’t begin to understand the value of life.

Today’s text from Thessalonians contains some very significant promises for us as believers. In them we find truths – God’s truths – that change our perspective of facing death. It tells us death actually is a temporary existence of sleep – not a permanent state – and we should not grieve as do those who have no hope.

I remember as a boy visiting with my grandpa and grandma, Martin and Anna Laaveg, who were farmers on the plains of eastern North Dakota. Anna was a typical farm wife. As a boy I marveled at how she could cook elegant delicious meals for us on an old wood stove in her kitchen. She would open the doors and throw just the right amount of logs in to stoke the fire. I loved to feel its warmth, see the brightness of the flames light, and then consider how she could get the temperature just right to cook for us.

Imagine if this wood stove were a symbol for the fire of hope that gives us the courage to face death. What would God use as logs to stoke the fire of our hope and enable us to live with faith and courage even when we will die? This passage in I Thessalonians 4 gives us five logs for the fire of our hope.

The first log is simply that Jesus, the perfect Son of God, died on the cross for the sins of the world, including our sins. Scriptures tell us that He was the Lamb of God who was slain. His blood was shed on the cross and bought our forgiveness and our salvation. An old Gospel song sings it well, “He Took My Place.”

I recently read a story told from the seafaring days of yesteryear about an old sea captain. He was very ill and knew he was going to die. So he called his first mate into the cabin and asked, “Please fetch me a Bible and find some comforting words to read. I am not a religious man, but I know I’m not long for this world. I need a word of hope to help me find the courage to die.”

“I’m sorry,” said the first mate. “I don’t know the Scriptures, and I don’t have a Bible. I’m afraid, captain, that I can’t help you.”

So the captain called the second mate who also said, “I don’t have a Bible in my possession, captain. What’s more, I haven’t heard anything from the Scriptures since I was a wee lad.”

“Could you pray for me then?” said the captain.

“I’m afraid I don’t know how to pray sir.”

“Well, can’t anybody on the ship find a Bible and give me hope?” So they searched the whole crew and found the cook’s assistant had a Bible. The captain summoned him into the cabin and said, “Lad, I am very sick. I’m soon to die. I need a word from the Bible to give me hope and comfort.”

“Well,” the lad said to the captain. “I don’t know exactly what to read for you. Would you like me to read the last passage my grandma read for me before I boarded the ship?”

“Yes, lad,” said the captain.

So the boy turned to Isaiah 53 and read theses words, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrow. The Lord has laid upon him the iniquity of us all.”

“Aye, lad,” he said. “That’s it! God has placed on another my iniquity, my guilt!”

The lad said, “Would you like me to read it for you like my grandma read it? She told me to put my own name in the reading.”

“Yes, lad. Read it that way.”

So the boy read, “The Lord laid upon Him the iniquity of Bobby. All of Bobby’s sin and guilt was laid upon Him.”

“Aye, lad. That’s comforting words. Now read it again and put the captain’s name in it, if you please.”

“The Lord laid upon Him the iniquity of the captain. He took away the captain’s guilt.”

“That’s the word for me, lad,” he said. “Could you pray for me?” So the boy, in simple words, prayed God would stir faith in the heart of the captain to believe Jesus came to earth, went to the cross, and was raised from the dead, thus fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 53. God made a promise in the name of Jesus that the iniquity of us all was laid upon Jesus Christ.

The first log of our hope that gives us the courage to face death is the truth that Jesus Christ, the Innocent, has died for the guilty like me. My heart is full of sin – my attitudes, my mind, my actions. I need the forgiveness of Jesus Christ.

The second log on the fire of my hope is the truth that Jesus rose from the dead. Death could not hold Him. We read in Romans, “Jesus was raised from the dead never to die again, for death no more had mastery over him” (Romans 6:9). Jesus, the Son of God who was crucified, conquered death. The grave could not hold Him.

This is true for us, too. Because He lives, we will live also. Just as it powerfully tells us in Jesus’ words spoken to His dear friends Mary and Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, though he dies, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this? (John 11:25-26)”

The third log of our hope that gives us the courage to face death is the promise in First Thessalonians that Jesus is coming again! This same Jesus, who came with a vulnerability and was laid in a manger, who emptied Himself of all His power and glory and took on the form of a servant – a man with all the limits of being a man – who was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven, will come again in power and glory. He will be riding a white horse and every eye shall see Him.

Jesus tells us, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am (John 14:2-4). “Every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess: Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:10-11).

The fourth log that stokes the fire of our hope so we have courage to face death is the promise of a grand family reunion someday. Those who have died before us will come back with Jesus. He will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in His name.

Not long ago, the best friend of the woman who had passed on, related that she told her friend on her deathbed, “If you get there first, know that I’ll be coming to join you soon.” Even in the funeral liturgy, in the prayers of the Church, we sometimes speak of the mystical body of Jesus Christ. Those who are in heaven and we who still remain on earth are one body with Christ. We are one with the saints of light who have gone on before us and are in the presence of Jesus now.

Someday, when time as we know it ends, Jesus, according to the will and plan of the Father, will come back for His people, and there will be a glorious family reunion! We will all be caught up together with the Lord in the air.

The fifth log that stokes the fire of our hope so we have faith and courage to face even our own death is the promise that we are given eternal life by God our Father in the name of our blessed Savior, Jesus. This means that when we breathe our last breath in this world, we don’t come to an end. Instead, we awaken on the other side of our physical death in the presence of the Lord Himself. Our eyes will see Him in His glory.

Remember when Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Or the verse we learned as children, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him will never perish but have eternal life. For God didn’t come in the world to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16, 17). Jesus offers His life, His forgiving grace, to us that we might believe in Him as our Savior and our God. In our believing, He gives us eternal life. We will be with the Lord for ever.

It’s not just the life that goes on forever, but it’s also the quality of life. It’s a life without tears or sorrow. A life free of pain. A life that exceeds our imaginations. It will be so wonderful!

So the fire burns in my heart with the living hope, just like the fire in the wood stove of Grandma Anna in the kitchen of that farmhouse on the plains of North Dakota. The fire of my hope gives me light when I walk in darkness. It warms my heart when terror makes my heart cold. It heals my grief when I lay dear ones to rest and weep because they are gone. Most of all, it gives me courage to face what each day of life brings as long as God grants me life.

The gift of faith allows me to cling to hope. All these promises are true. Jesus died on the cross for my sins. He rose from the dead never to die again. Jesus is coming again to take us to be with Him. We who are still alive when Jesus comes again will have a grand family reunion with those who have gone before us. Jesus promises us eternal life.

Jesus comes to you today and says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I’ll come in and sup with him and he with me” (Rev. 3:20).

Today is a wonderful day to stoke the fire of your hope, to embrace Jesus as the Son of God and your Savior, and by faith to receive the courage to face your own death, because Jesus is greater than death. He is the Lord of life. Amen.

Pastor Lee Laaveg

The Secret of Happiness

What would you say is the secret to happiness? Pretty big question isn’t? A lot of people are looking for it. Someone might say, “Well, it’s a good marriage Ð happy wife, happy life!” Someone else might say, “The secret to happiness? It’s being financially secure, debt free!” Someone else might respond, “The secret of happiness is having good health.” Others might say that the secret of happiness is attaining the American dream.

Lately I’ve been hearing that it’s grandchildren. My daughter Martha and her husband Andrew are expecting a baby boy any day now. Those who have already entered the grandparenting club tell us it will be the happiest time of our lives when that little one arrives, and we can’t wait!

In the Bible, the word for happy is blessed. Jesus used that word in the Beatitudes, a poetic section of his Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. Recently I came across some modern-day beatitudes taken from the messages TV commercials communicate to us about happiness. Basically they are telling us that their products will make us happy, right? Well, here are just a few I thought might entertain you . . .

☺ Blessed are those who fly to luxury vacation spots on tropical islands where they lie in chase lounge chairs, the only two people on an enormous white beach, for they shall be satisfied.

☺ Blessed are those who drink much beer for they shall be surrounded by carefree, football-watching buddies, and highly attractive, socially-gifted women in their first half of life, and they shall be satisfied.

☺ Blessed are those who have the latest smart phone for they shall gaze on the screen swirling with color and get all the information they need just when they need it, and they shall be satisfied.

The sad thing is, people actually buy into this line of thinking.

However, Jesus turns these philosophies upside down as He announces, “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news.” His Beatitudes describe happiness. They are beautiful and poetic. We love to hear them and recite them, but they are so much more than poetry. They are words loaded with a punch and meant to awaken us like lightning in the sky on a dark night. The Beatitudes usher us into a new world with new values Ð Jesus’ vision for your life and mine, of people receiving gifts. Wonderful gifts!

We see people entering the kingdom of God, being comforted, inheriting the earth, receiving mercy, finding satisfaction, and being adopted into God’s family. All of this is very traditional language. Expectations date way back to the Old Testament times. People were hoping for this. The surprise comes when Jesus names the beneficiaries of these promised blessings.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn.

Blessed are the meek.

Blessed are those who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness.

Blessed are the merciful.

Blessed are the peacemakers.

Blessed are the persecuted.

This is not exactly what we would attach to happiness in our minds.

Jesus is really not talking about spiritual virtuosos or the religious elite. He is looking at ordinary folk who are inspired to seek God’s rule of righteousness in their lives. Instead of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, He is talking about the lifestyles of the repentant, those who repent and follow Jesus.

Today’s verse says this: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” We shall see God! Being in the very presence of God and having access to Him is the apex of a religious experience, isn’t it?

Who shall see Him? Jesus says the pure in heart.

Who are the pure in heart? The Bible tells us the heart is a way of talking about the inner person, our mind, our will, our emotions. They all work together.

Walt Disney World Resort has a theme park called Epcot, which had a place I loved to visit called Cranium Command. It took you inside the head of a teenage boy who is getting ready to step into a new day. It was an entertaining and amazing thing to go through.

A few years later Disney put out a movie called Inside Out, which is about getting in touch with the inside of a teenage girl. It is very entertaining and insightful. We learn in that movie that it is what’s on the inside that counts.

This is what Jesus is saying. The heart is what makes me who I am. So the heart is the mind, the will, the emotions of an individual. Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart . . .” Pure means unmixed, the same through and through. Notice it doesn’t say, Blessed are the prudes in heart or Blessed are the perfect in heart. No it says the “pure,” the unmixed. It means to be single-minded. To be pure in heart is talking about a personality that is neither divided nor confused in its affections, devotions, and commitment. Jesus talked about this in His Sermon on the Mount in chapter 6. He said, “No one can serve two masters.” It is impossible. James picks up on the same sort of theme. “Purify your hearts, you double minded” (James 4:8).

To have a pure heart is to have single-minded devotion, commitment, mind, will, and emotion toward God. It’s the pursuance of one thing Ð God. I’ve even heard the “pure in heart” described as a person with an undivided heart.

Years ago a movie called City Slickers came out about a young guy who is trying to figure out life. He meets this old cowboy who tells him the secret of life is one thing: chasing after that “one thing.” That is what Jesus is telling us.

S ren Kierkegaard, a Danish theologian said, “Purity in heart is to will one thing.” To be pure in heart is to will one will, to love God, to pursue His will in my life. It’s being all in with God, knowing that I need Him and He holds the secrets to what makes my life work.

When Jesus describes this Beatitude in His sermon on the Mount, He is describing the person whose focus is totally on God. It’s a mind and a will that is undivided. It is playing for an audience of One. It is the person who is “seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33).

One problem I have heard people say is they have is so many competing commitments in their life. We have so much junk in our hearts, and our sinfulness cries out, Satisfy me; my will be done. It gets us off track.

When I think of the pure in heart, I think of a young man in my congregation named Christian. A few years ago he had a spiritual awakening and asked Christ into his life. It is so inspiring to just sit and talk with him now as he pursues Jesus in his life. He is not perfect; his wife will tell you that. He is not a prude either; he’s a lot of fun to be around. He is very focused and wants to get close to God and his relationship with Jesus. They just left for Trinity seminary in Chicago, and I look forward to seeing what this single-minded devotion of Christian is going to do for the kingdom of God.

I think of a young lady named Gabby who is on fire for God. She is anxious to get closer to God, to understand His heart, His mind, and His will for her life. She is a fun kid and can get herself into trouble. However, she has a pure heart for God.

Jesus promises that the pure in heart will see God, and we wonder when that will happen. We know we will see Him when He returns and we have a new heaven and a new earth. The Apostle Paul tells us, “Now we see in a mirror dimly; then we shall see face to face” (I Cor. 13:12). John tells us we will be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is (I John 3:2). The book of Revelation reveals to us that His servants will worship him and they will see His face (22:3, 4).

So we will see Him face-to-face when that great day arrives. But how about now? In the benediction we sometimes hear, “May the Lord make His face shine upon you,. . be gracious to you, . . . lift up His countenance upon you, and give you His peace.” We know that as a person turns to God and begins to seek Him, not only will God see him, acknowledge him, and lift His face upon him, but that person will also see God.

A few months ago, my wife, Julie, and I were looking for a new car. We found a car that we were really taken with. I was ready to buy it right on the spot, but Julie wanted to look some more. After we left the car lot, it felt like I was seeing this car every time we turned the corner. Isn’t it funny how, when your desire something, you begin seeing it all over the place.

Likewise, when you desire God, you start seeing Him everywhere Ð even, for instance, in the creation. Elizabeth Barrett Browning once said, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God.”

We see God in the faces of those we reach out to help. “As you did it for the least of these my brethren, you did it for me” (Matt. 25:40). We see it in the faces of those who walk along side of us during sad times and glad times. We see Him as we sit at the table and look at the food before us and when we see that check at the end of the month from our place of employment. We thank God for His provision.

You Ð the pure in heart Ð shall see God.

So let me ask you Ð How is your heart these days? Somebody may be listening this day who wants to see God. How do you do that? The step toward a pure heart begins when we confess our sins and turn to Jesus Christ. We are made pure by the blood of Jesus Christ who died on the cross to cleanse us of our sinfulness. He purifies us.

For those of us who have turned to Him and call Him our Savior, we need to turn to Him and drown the old self in repentance, daily surrendering ourselves to Him and His leadership. Adopt this attitude: I want to know You, God. I want to follow You. I want to please You. I want to be close to You. I want to understand You. I want to see You in my life.

An old hymn speaks of this desire as a prayer:

Breathe on me, breath of God,

Fill me with life, anew.

that I may love all that you love,

and do what you would do.

Breathe on me, breathe of God,

Until my heart is pure.

Until with thee I will one will

to do and to endure.

What is the secret of happiness? It’s found in that prayer. Ask Him in. Follow Him.

Surprised by God’s Care and Compassion

I want to begin our message by playing a little word association game with you. I’ll say a word and you respond with the first word that pops in your mind.

Romeo and . . .

Bacon and . . .

Jonah and . . .

I’m guessing you responded to the first two with Juliet and eggs, and the last one with whale. That’s where our minds typically go when we hear the name Jonah. Even though the fish is only mentioned four times in the story, people have a way of making it the main character, thus missing out on the main point of the story. People may also struggle with the notion of a person being swallowed by a big fish and living through it. I don’t have much of a problem with it because I believe God created the heavens and the earth, and He can do whatever He wants to do. Being from Montana, I know it wasn’t a whale anyway Ð it was a rainbow trout!

It turns out that Jesus our Lord liked the story and didn’t seem to be bothered by it in the least. He used the story of Jonah being in the belly of the fish as an analogy, comparing it to the three days He would spend in the grave and His resurrection. If it is included in our Bible, it must have an important truth for us.

Before we get hooked into the idea that this is just a fish story, let me propose that the purpose of the story is to teach us something about God and ourselves. Now let’s look at it.

Jonah was an eighth century Jewish man from the region of Galilee, the northern kingdom of the holy land. It was during the reign of Jeroboam, a terrible King of northern Israel. Jeroboam set up worship places as alternatives to the Temple in Jerusalem. This led to bad things, like Baal and idol worship, thus breaking the First Commandment. God appointed Jonah to be His spokesman to those folks. He was a preacher.

One day Jonah received a very interesting message from God. “Go at once to the city of Nineveh and cry out against its wickedness, which has come before me!” Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrians, the nastiest, most despicable people on the face of the earth. They were a major world power known for violence, cruelties and opposition to Israel’s God. Everybody was afraid of them.

The Ninevites had made Israel’s life miserable in the past. Now God was telling Jonah to preach to them. This was the first time a prophet had ever been called to a foreign land. It was a tough call, and Jonah didn’t want to go. In fact, he set off in a completely opposite direction to flee from the presence of God. He obviously had a very small view of God here. A god with borders.

The story doesn’t tell us why Noah didn’t want to go, but you can use your imagination to speculate. How would you like to be called to do street ministry in Kabul, Afghanistan? It would be a frightening thing to consider. Jonah being called to preach on the street corners against this violent nation, 500 miles from home. Perhaps he didn’t really care about those kinds of people. Who knows? We’ll find out later.

So Jonah booked a ride on a ship leaving Joppa for Tarshish to get away from God’s presence. However, God pursued him. He sent a great wind upon the sea and a major storm occurred. The storm was so bad that even the sailors, who were seasoned at this kind of thing, were deathly afraid. They began to pray to the gods to spare their lives, and they threw cargo off the ship to lighten it. Yet the storm grew worse and worse.

While all this was going on, Jonah was asleep in the bottom of the ship. The captain of the ship woke him up and said, “Talk to your God, perhaps He will spare us.”

When Jonah joined them on deck, the sailors, believing God was punishing someone, cast lots to see who was guilty among them. The lot fell on Jonah, and so they asked him, Who are you? What is your occupation? Where are you from?

Jonah says, I am a Hebrew, and I worship God who created this sea and dry land.

What have you done? they asked in their fear. Knowing he was running from the presence of God, they asked, What should we do to appease your God and stop the storm?

Jonah replied, Throw me overboard, and the sea will be quiet.

These men were decent guys and didn’t want to do such a terrible thing, so they rowed even harder to get the ship back the land, but they just couldn’t make it. Then they called out to God, the God of Jonah, We don’t want to do this. Don’t blame us for this. Don’t put his blood on us, but . . . Then they threw Jonah overboard and the sea immediately stopped raging. The sailors were converted and offered a sacrifice to God making vows to Him. Jonah had brought those pagan sailors to faith without even trying. God has His ways.

The Lord provided a ride for Jonah in that raging sea. A large fish came up and swallowed him as soon as he hit the water. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and nights. What did he do there? He prayed a prayer of thanksgiving for the deliverance God had given him from drowning in the sea. Then God has the fish spit him up on the dry land.

The call then came a second time from the Lord, Go to Nineveh and proclaim the great message that I tell you. This time Jonah obeyed. He set out and went to Nineveh.

What was Nineveh like? Our writer tells us it was an exceedingly large city Ð three days walk across. It was huge! On the first day, Jonah the Hebrew prophet entered the city and began to cry out on a street corner, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” I imagine he said it with fear and trembling. And the people of Nineveh listened! They believed God! Everyone, great and small, began to fast and put on sackcloth as a sign of repenting and turning to the Lord. They even put sackcloth on the animals!

The Assyrian king, when hearing this message from Jonah, removed his clothes, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes as a sign of his repentance. He was sorry for his evil ways, and he issued a proclamation to all the residents of Nineveh: Everyone should fast, put on sackcloth, and cry mightily to God. Turn from your evil ways and from the violence in your hands. Who knows? God may relent and turn from His fierce anger so we don’t perish.

When God saw their repentance, He changed His mind about the calamity He said He would bring upon them. Wow! A successful evangelistic revival! Jonah must’ve been thrilled, right? Wrong.

Jonah was angry with God’s compassion and care toward these “losers.” Just listen to his prayer: “Lord, is this not what I said while I was still in my country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning. I knew you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent from punishing. Now, just take my life from me, for it’s better for me to die than to live. He was mad!

Now we know why Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh. He knew about God’s mercy and compassion, His grace and steadfast love. He knew God could change His mind about punishing the Ninevites. Jonah didn’t want these folks to receive God’s grace. He wanted God to destroy them. But God’s answer to Jonah was, “Is it right for you to be angry, Jonah?”

It is an interesting final scene. Things are coming to a head. Jonah goes out of the city of Nineveh, sits on a hill and waits to see what’s going to become of the people. Perhaps he thought God would give him his way and destroy it.

The Lord appointed a bush to give Jonah some shade and save him from discomfort. Jonah liked that bush. Yet, the next day at dawn, God appointed a worm to attack the bush. When the sun rose, God prepared a hot east wind, and the bush withered. The sun beat down on Jonah’s head, and he was feeling faint. Once again in his anger and despair he prayed, “God, just let me die. I don’t want to go on living. Nothing makes sense anymore.”

Then God asked Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about that bush?”

Jonah replied, Yes, angry enough to die. That would be better as far as I’m concerned.

Then God gave him a lesson, “You are concerned about a bush for which you didn’t labor. You didn’t grow it; It came into being in a day and perished in a night. Should I not be concerned about Nineveh where more than 120,000 persons do not know their right from their left, and also many animals?” (That word concerned literally means pity or compassion.)

God used a certain sort of logic moving from smaller to greater. Jonah, you care about a little plant. Can you fault me for having pity on 120,000 people created in my image who are ignorant about me and spiritual matters? That is how the story ends Ð with a question to Jonah and a question for the readers of Jonah.

Jonah was surprised by God’s care for these hated outsiders. His mindset, you see, was a reflection of the Jews of his time. Israel had become a little huddle, so to speak, in a sea of humanity. A certain exclusive-ism was at work there. Instead of being a light to the nations as God had called them to be, they cared only about themselves. Let’s keep God to ourselves. He only cares about us anyway. But God cares about everyone else too.

What is the lesson for us today? First, we have to ask the question, Who is Jonah? In today’s world, Jonah could be the church turned in on itself, caring more about its own than about the hurts of the world or people who are far from God. Jonah could be a church that has become complacent or developed an us-against-them attitude. They are huddled against the evil world around them, praying for judgment and destruction to come sooner rather than later.

Or Jonah could be an individual like you and me. Like Jonah, we know all the answers about God. God is gracious, loving, and merciful. However, like Jonah, we wrestle with our own prejudices and boundaries as well. We get apathetic about others who are far from God. In fact, some of us don’t really know if we even want God to show them grace and compassion like He’s shown us. They don’t really deserve it anyway.

Jesus dealt with some of that attitude, didn’t He? He told a story about an older brother who couldn’t stand the thought of his father extending mercy, forgiveness, and generosity to his rebellious younger brother who returned home after squandering the family fortune in a faraway land.

The story of Jonah has a negative word against huddling and exclusive-ism from the world. It’s against prejudice toward those who believe we have a monopoly on God’s grace. God wants everyone to come to repentance and to worship him. Jesus gave Himself as a ransom for all people when He went to the cross. The ground is level at the foot of the cross. We’re all sinners in need of God’s grace.

The Jonah story has something positive to say to us as well. It’s a wonderful picture of God and His compassion for His creation. Martin Luther once wrote, “The story of Jonah is a mighty and wonderful sign of God’s goodness to all the world, for in it we are reminded of Jesus’ line to Nicodemus in John 3:16 Ð ÔGod so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.'” Or I think of the old Sunday school song, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight . . .”

In this story we are reminded that God cares for you. If He cares about those cows of Nineveh as He did in the book of Jonah, don’t you think He cares for you? Remember Jesus telling our much our heavenly Father feeds and care for the sparrows, and we are of so much more value than any sparrow.

Finally then, the story leaves us with a very important task to get to work on. It’s a reminder about our calling. God cares about all the people of the world, and our task is the same as Jonah’s Ð to be spokespersons for God. The Word of the Lord has already come to us, His followers of Jesus Christ. He says, “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe everything I’ve commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19-20).

Let us go for the Lord.

Surprised by God’s Word

Our God is full of surprises! There is a story about a very dignified pastor. He visited a lady in a nursing home who was on her deathbed. As he stood to leave, he asked if he might pray for her, and she said, “Of course! Thank you, pastor.”

When he asked how she would like him to pray, she replied, “Pray that I might be healed.” He hesitantly swallowed, took her hand, and prayed that God would be with her and bring her comfort and strength Ð healing.

When he finished praying, her face began to glow. She said softly, “Pastor, I’m feeling a little better. Would you help me to my feet?” Not knowing what else to do, he helped her up. At first she took a few uncertain, unsteady steps. Then she began to jump up and down and then dance and shout and cry with happiness until the whole nursing home was aroused and people were crowding outside her door into the hallway. After she was quieted down, the dignified, solemn pastor excused himself then hurried out to his car and closed the door. He grabbed hold of the steering wheel and prayed, “Lord, don’t you ever do that to me again!”

Our God is full of surprises! This has been our theme these past few weeks on Christian Crusaders, as we look at some Old Testament stories. We’ve been surprised by God’s draft picks as He selects Gideon to battle the Midianites on behalf of the people of Israel. We’ve been surprised by the amazing grace God showed to Adam and Eve after their sin in the garden of Eden. Today we are surprised by God’s Word, His directives to Naaman.

Nathan was a mighty commander, a five-star general so to speak, an Aramian who was very successful in battle. Although the God of Israel gave him the victories, Naaman was not one of God’s people and was considered to be an outsider, unclean to Jewish folks.

He was also an unclean outsider among his own people. Naaman, you see, had a grotesque skin disease called leprosy. One day, Naaman’s wife told him about what she had heard from her young Jewish maid, who had been captured during one of his conquest. The maid told about a Jewish prophet who had a direct line with God. He was a spokesman of God who lived in the northern part of the Promised Land, Israel. “This prophet of God,” the young maiden said, “could take care and heal this leprosy of Naaman’s if they could just get together.” So Naaman acted upon this tip, which in itself was an act of faith.

Naaman went to the King of Aram and requested a leave. He told the king what he heard from his Jewish maiden. The king gave him leave and even sent a letter of approval and much cash to pay for this healing.

The unusual thing is, Naaman was sent to the King of Israel, not to the prophet the Jewish maiden had described. And when the king was approached by Naaman with the letter from the King of Aram, he went into a panic. You see, Israel had already been pretty beaten up by the Aramaeans. So when Naaman presented the paper requesting a healing, the King tore his clothes in great consternation and said, “Do I look like God? I can’t do that!” Believing the King of Aram was picking a fight with him, and he went in a deep, deep panic and depression.

Now when the prophet of God, Elisha, heard of the king’s panic, he sent a message, Why have you torn your robes? Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel. So the king sent Naaman to Elisha.

Naaman went to Elisha’s house with his entourage of chariots, servants, and stallions. He knocked on the door, but instead of meeting with him personally, Elisha sent his messenger with these simple directions containing a command and a promise: “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.”

Naaman, of course, was upset by what he considered to be an insult, poor treatment, and he refused to listen. His ego was wounded. This guy didn’t even come out and meet him face-to-face, and the prescription sounded so absurd and ridiculous! Naaman’s pride got in the way. He had preconceived notions as to how this healing should happen, and he was not getting it. Instead, he received a word from this man of God to go jump in a river. So he decided to go home!

However, cooler heads prevailed. His servants gently talked him down and convinced him to follow the prophet’s instructions to dip himself in the river. Naaman swallowed his pride and surrendered himself to Elisha’s word, God’s word. He dipped himself in the Jordan River seven times, and . . . Surprise! Surprise! He was healed! His skin became as smooth as a child’s skin. Naaman immediately became a believer, a servant, a worshiper of the God of Israel. Listen to this announcement he made: “Now I know there is no God in all the earth except in Israel. . .”

Naaman became a keeper of the first commandment of God, something Israel itself was not doing at the time, which is why they were having such trouble. He tried to pay Elisha, but Elisha said, This is God’s doing. I am not taking money from you. So Naaman asked for a couple loads of dirt from this place Ð God’s holy land Ð to make an altar to the Lord with it and keep worshiping God.

This is how the story ends Ð with Naaman now a believer in the God of Israel, surprised by God’s Word, and even more surprised by the truth of His Word.

It’s a funny little story in a way, don’t you think? It kind of makes you wonder why this story was kept around. What does this story from Israel’s dark, unfaithful days have to say to us today? Well, it is a lesson for those of us who call ourselves God’s people. Sometimes God’s ways seem all too simple, even foolish to us. His ways are so different from our ways. Naaman had his own preconceived ideas of how his healing should happen, and he was surprised by Elisha’s instruction otherwise. He balked at the command of God’s Word and rejected it. But then, his mind was straightened out by his servants. Naaman followed Elisha’s command and found himself cleansed and healed.

So what did he learn? There is no God but this God, and Naaman ought to take Him at His word. I don’t know about you, but I find I need to learn that same thing over and over again. Naaman is not all that unusual, is he?

This story is rather relevant for people like you and me. As human beings, we struggle with God’s Word. We are surprised by His directives and His promises. I am reminded of God’s words to the prophet Isaiah, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8). We see it working in this story today. Let me give you a for-instance of how it can work in people’s minds, how we struggle with it.

A person comes to see me and says, “I’ve really loused up my life. I’ve feel far away from God. I’ve done some terrible things. What do I need to do to get right with God? I want to start over.”

I tell them, “God says, ÔBelieve in my Son, Jesus Christ, whom I sent to save you.'”

“Surely there must be something more I need to do in order to be spiritually healed,” is the response, “something special I need to do to involve myself. I need to earn this, don’t I, to get right with God? After all, you get what you deserve.”

The Word of God says, “Trust in Jesus for your spiritual healing and salvation.”

Again and again I find people struggle with that. They find it too simplistic. It sounds too easy, and they walk away.

This story of Naaman found its way into the New Testament. It was a personal favorite of Jesus, the Son of God. He used it in Luke chapter four as He began His ministry in His hometown of Nazareth. He had been asked to read at the Tabernacle on the Sabbath. He read from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he appointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:1-2). Then He said to the crowd, “Today, this word is fulfilled in your hearing.”

The people questioned His claims: Isn’t this Joseph’s son? God wouldn’t work like that through a simple carpenter’s son. No way!” They balked at the message and the opportunity to follow Jesus. So Jesus told the Naaman story about an outsider of Israel who was a leper, who acted in faith and was healed. It was His way of telling them to consider Naaman’s story and reconsider their doubts about Him. But they didn’t. They just got mad and tried to kill Jesus, rejecting the salvation He was offering.

The Naaman story is a reminder to trust our all-wise, all-knowing, all-powerful, ever-present God and take Him at His word. Like the old hymn says, trust and obey, not just in matters of salvation, but in all of life.

Perhaps someone has hurt you deeply. You’re really mad and very offended. The more you think about it, the more bitter you become. It is making you miserable. What should you do to get past it? God’s Word says, Don’t hang onto that grudge. Forgive as you have been forgiven. This is the way of life and freedom in My kingdom.

Hearing this, we want to add to it or neglect it altogether. We want to get even. This sounds too simplistic. We know better. That person needs to ask for forgiveness first. When she asks for forgiveness, then I will forgive and let it go. Or, he’s going to make is up to me somehow, and then I’ll forgive. Until it happens, I won’t forgive and let this go. By not forgiving, we end up feeling miserable. Holding onto a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. It just doesn’t work.

My dear friends, the bottom line of this message today is this: Trust in God’s surprising Word, His promises, and His directives, just like Naaman did.