It was a Friday night in mid-winter, and Steve was troubled about a patient. “She’s a sweet woman named Mildred and I think she has but a few days before she faces God. I sent her home today for there’s nothing more medicine can do for her. I’ve gone into her room several times in hopes of sharing Christ with her, but her husband is always there and always talking non-stop.”
“What are you going to do?”
“How would you feel about driving to their farm with me to visit tomorrow?”
“What about the talkative husband?”
“I’ll ask him to show me his barn, and while we’re out at the barn, you can share the gospel with her.”
“Hmmmm,” I said, feeling some Jonah like reluctance.
Slowly, I nodded.
He hugged me and prayed God would give us favor.
And so, in the morning, we headed out in the country to visit Mildred and Mike.
When we arrived, Mildred was in the living room on the sofa, wrapped in blankets. Her husband was talking… but Steve interrupted him: “Mike — I’d love for you to give me a tour of your barn!”
“Nah,” he said. “It’s a mess.”
“Oh — I’d still really like to see it.” Steve stood up — ready to go.
“Nah. Not going to show it to you. Come back in the spring. I’m staying right here with you and Mildred.”
Mike never stopped talking. I sat down on the floor next to his wife, took her hand, and tried to have a private conversation. But that dear farmer plopped down right next to me, cause he had things he wanted to tell me about the farming life. I looked at Steve and pled with my eyes. Now what?
He shrugged. After an hour we left. Failure — or so it seemed.
But God had a plan that would not be thwarted. Though Mildred did die a few days later, after the funeral the daughter told Steve that her mother had put her trust in Christ after we left. “She told me she knew why you and your wife had come. After you left, she prayed and asked Jesus to forgive her for her sins.”
I share this with you to encourage you — that God is sovereign, and if He is drawing someone, that even the worst evangelist will succeed.
Jonah was certainly the worst. His life had none of the fragrance of Christ. He hated the Ninevites, didn’t want to share the good news with them, and when he finally did, gave the worst possible presentation in history. Not a word about the love or grace of God. Not a word about their need to repent and trust Him. Only: “Yet forty days, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!” Or, as The Message puts it, “Forty days and Ninevah will be smashed.” (Jonah 3:4) Not exactly a winsome gospel presentation.
But the people of Ninevah believed God and were saved.
Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. J. I. Packer has a classic book by that title — and it is a subject we will cover in our study. Whether you call it election or predestination — it’s a thorny issue, but one you can’t avoid if you are going to take a good look at Jonah or Scripture. It is also one that has brought me great peace in evangelism. I know God calls me to share the good news, just as He would call me to share a cure for cancer if I knew it. And I know He calls me to be gentle and humble and honest and to live what I speak. But the results? That’s up to Him. And I must trust Him with my loved ones.
Please don’t think that Jonah’s success gives us a license to be lousy evangelists. God commands us to share with “gentleness and respect.” (See I Peter 3:14-16) And then we leave the results to Him, for in Him is “dominion forever and ever.” (1 Peter 5:11)
One of the characteristics that Steve loved in many of the farmers of Nebraska was their respect for God’s sovereignty. They knew they were completely dependent on Him. They would work hard, plowing their fields, planting their seed, caring for their crops — but they also knew that unless He granted favor with the weather, they would not succeed.” That’s what we are called to do — to sow our seed with love, but then leave the results to Him. That has actually taken enormous pressure off of me. Early in my Christian life, I thought it was up to me, and I would get physically ill out of concern for my parents’ salvation. I truly believe you will be blessed when we look at this doctrine in the context of Jonah.
But we aren’t going there yet. I also want to give you a taste of another truth in Jonah. Jonah’s problem was a heart idol that was blocking the compassionate Spirit of God. So Jonah is about idolatry — I am seeing, in fact, the whole Bible is about idolatry. Whenever we have a problem, we can discover a heart idol at the root.
Even though I grew up in Wisconsin and then lived 25 years in Nebraska, I don’t know a whole lot about farms. I know more than my New Yorker friend Kathy Troccoli. Whenever she’d visit me in Nebraska she’d have a lot of fun with the farmers. She wanted to meet my friend Keith Johnson, because we wrote about him in Falling in Love with Jesus — painting him as a contemporary Boaz, who married a contemporary Ruth (my friend Jill.) When Steve had cancer, we all made a visit to Keith and Jill’s farm. Here is Kathy on what she kept calling “a concubine.”
In the great free message you will listen to this week from Keller on Jonah and Idolatry, he uses a farming metaphor I didn’t understand. I had to write my sister Bonnie’s husband, because he grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm, and I knew he would understand. Keller quoted Martin Luther who was fond of this metaphor, and said that when you talk to someone about sin, they stare at you “like a cow stares at a new gate.” I asked Jim, “What does that mean?”
Jim explained: A cow’s life is based on certainty–trods the same paths every day. A new gate will stop it in its hoofs.
I get it. When you talk to someone about sin, especially today (and no doubt, especially in New York) they stare at you, not comprehending. “A sinner? The wrath of God?” Where did you come from, they think, Nebraska?
But when you talk to them about idols of the heart, you get a different reaction. They no longer stare at you like a cow stares at a new gate. As Keller say, “You get traction.” Keller explains that while many New Yorkers don’t think of themselves as sinners, they often can identify what they feel they have to have for life to be meaningful. Keller may not use the word idol right away, but he does show them why that overwhelming desire cannot be their Solid Rock, and is leading to all kinds of misery… He’ll touch on it in this week’s sermon, and come back in future sermons.
I am in a secular book club in Wisconsin with women who the world might think “have it all.” I could never talk to them about sin — they would think I was saying they were sinful and I was not. They would be offended and angry. It would be a train wreck.
But I have had a few conversations with them about my heart idols (and I did use the word) and they did listen. I told them about why seeing these invisible idols is a more effective way to change than to attack the symptom. They listened — even had searching questions.
So this is another topic we will consider when we consider Jonah. A fresh approach to evangelism.
For those of you who might like to do some additional reading, I have a suggestion:
from Scotland, South Carolina, and now Texas. This is a brief but very
readable and insightful commentary on Jonah. I read half it on the
plane yesterday. Optional — but I recommend it.
Ferguson said he thought a good title for Jonah would be
“Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God.”
A couple of personal notes:
Last week when I told you why Rebecca had come to the blog, I then asked: “Why are you here?” Your answers warmed me, surprised me, and showed me why this is such an amazing gathering. Your vulnerability, your honesty, and your longings make me so thankful to have you here and to be privileged to mentor women like you. I thank God for you.
I also want to tell you something so you can share in our joy. My manager, David, is expanding his website business and has wanted to take a piece out of his job with me: the handling of retreats. I felt anxiety, for David has been so good, and I don’t worry about things going wrong technically at a retreat. But God is truly showing me (chip by chip on my control idol) that I can trust Him to be in control. I began to pray, and our own Rebecca came to mind. She lives right here in Kansas City, where I am. Her passion for God and the talents He has given her drew me to her for this position. Last week you watched her testimony. David has been training her and now she is on her own — she has done all the work for my engagement in Augusta tonight (if you are reading this on Sunday — please pray for tonight — quickening, and that the tech part will go well). Rebecca’s not traveling with me, but is making sure everything is set up and running before I get there. Please pray for Rebecca and for the ministry. I thank God for her.
Rebecca is already proving to me such a wonderful help. She found this great link to sermons I was going to make you buy — but here they are free. You will have to buy some sermons during this study — but not yet. Go to this link.
It’s a wonderful message — and just a prelude to the journey we are beginning on Jonah!
Finally, I’m scheduled to speak in Augusta tonight but my plane was cancelled in Charlotte and I am still here. Am scheduled to try again to fly out this morning. Had several mix-ups and a short night. I need God’s quickening more than ever. Thanks so much for praying for that — and for my travel. I am so thankful for your friendship.
1. What stands out to you from the above and why?
2. Do you have any comments on the following two topics we will be considerng in our Jonah journey? If so, comment.
A. Election and Evangelism
B. A fresh approach to evangelism, using idols of the heart
Tuesday/Wednesday: Bible Study
Jonah is only four chapters. Read two a day and write down a few things that stand out to you. (Remember, if a verse becomes radioactive, stop, for God is talking to you.) And for those of you who have just studied Jonah, remember you need to read a Scriptural book about one hundred times before you begin to get it. 🙂 I’m also seeing the fact that several of you have just studied Jonah or are in the midst as God’s sovereignty — for you can bring fresh water to our spring.
Thursday/Friday: Listen to the Keller sermon entitled Gospel Realization — here’s the link again:
1. What was Keller’s experience with talking to New Yorkers about sin — and then — about idolatry? Why, do you think?
2. What is the supreme irony in the book of Jonah?
3. Keller says that before you can be an effective evangelist, you need to deal with the idol in your own heart.
Share your reflections on this.
4. A sign of a heart idol is when you don’t want to go on if it is taken from you. Keller tells a story he’s told before of two women married to difficult husbands. One was able to forgive her husband and the other was not. Why? Do you relate to this in any way?
5. Keller said the Lord has to become your “Rachel.” What did he mean? How are you doing with this?
6. What else stood out to you from this message and why?
7. What’s your take-a-way and why?