Three Prophets And Me

Sunday, February 26, 2006

In all of Christ's words recorded in the Bible, He mentions only a handful of the Lord's prophets by name. For the purpose of this writing and its ultimate point, I'm going to focus on three: Moses, Jonah, and Isaiah. (Strap in, folks, this is gonna be a rather long one, even for my standards.)

Isaiah was one of the most prolific writers of God's prophecies. Yet, in secular society, Isaiah isn't all that well-known.

But most people could tell you who Moses was. He of the Burning Bush and the Ten Commandments and the parting of the Red Sea and the Plagues and the "Let my people go!" (not in that order). Moses is probably the most 'famous' of all the prophets. I mean, the Ten Commandments thing would have probably been enough, but add to that all that other stuff and the wandering in the desert for 40 years (not to mention being portrayed by Charlton Heston)...suffice it to say, Moses has a good Q rating.

And most people also know of least, most know he got swallowed by a whale (or some kind of really big fish). That's about the extent of what most people know about Jonah, really. Many forget why he got swallowed. And it is with Jonah that I want to begin.

Part One

Jonah: I'm Outta Here

We know Jonah was a prophet of God, but there's only one example in Scripture of him acting in that office for the Lord. And funny enough, Jonah = not the greatest example of a prophet. Jonah = perhaps the worst example of a prophet. And yet the four chapters of the short book of Jonah in the Bible hold a gold mine of examples of God's Wrath and Mercy in the face of man's resistance and recalcitrance. The Book of Jonah is one of my favorites in all of scripture, in part because there are so many lessons packed into that small account, and in part because Jonah (the prophet) cracks me up. Of all the prophets, I have a soft spot for Jonah. He's a character. In some ways, he reminds me of the Apostle Peter, and I have a soft spot for Peter (a future blog). But Jonah cracks me up, not just because of his recalcitrant attitude, because his anger is so childish, so unjustified, and Jonah, in a word, pouts. Yup. A prophet of God pouts. His story ends with him pouting to the point of irrationally losing his will to live. We don't know if he actually died, because his story ends with God making a major point about His Almighty Grace and Mercy; and Jonah, for that moment, gets kinda lost in the wash.

To the beginning: Jonah was instructed by God to go warn the sinful people in the city of Nineveh to repent of their sinful ways. "Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me." (Jonah 1:2)

Okay, Jonah has his marching orders, from God Himself. Nineveh was a city full of immorality and people who had turned their backs on God, and God was charging Jonah to go deliver His message: "Clean up your act or be destroyed." You'd think he would go, right?

Jonah's all, 'No thanks.' He bails. This fool thinks he can actually flee the Lord, and he gets on a boat to get far away. Sure, it is later revealed that Jonah had a reason for running, but it's not a GOOD one. And why homeboy thinks he can find any spot on the Earth that is far enough away from God is beyond me. It was once proposed to me that Jonah ran because he was afraid of the Lord. I responded with "Personally, I think if you run from God, you don't fear him enough!" Can I get an Amen? If God speaks to you specifically, how can you not believe He's going to have his way? God's holy wrath is mentioned in the Bible many, many times. How can one be a prophet of God and run from fear? No, Jonah KNEW what the Lord would do in Nineveh, and didn't want the Lord to do it! Jonah had prejudged the people of Nineveh and thought they deserved damnation, but the Lord in his Great Mercy was willing to give Nineveh a chance; and Jonah couldn't stand it. Poor baby.

So Jonah sets sail with some pagan sailors, and God puts a storm in their path strong enough to destroy the ship. The sailors are all "What's this storm about?" They do the Old Testament version of rock-paper-scissors and decide it's Jonah's fault. Then they said to him, "Tell us, now! On whose account has this calamity struck us? What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?" (1:8)

His answer is actually pretty cool: He said to them, "I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land." (1:9) Jonah professes who he is and who he is he defined in part by whom he worships! And yet, he's running from whom he worships! (By the way, when he says "I fear the LORD God" I don't think that's in the same context of why he ran. In that case, I think he means fear of the Lord like awe and worship.)

They know he's running from the Lord, and ask him how to stop the storm: He said to them, "Pick me up and throw me into the sea. Then the sea will become calm for you, for I know that on account of me this great storm has come upon you." (1:12)

Jonah understands that to save these sailors he must get right with God, even if it means his death. He is responsible for this trouble that has afflicted them and he must make it right. (But it can also be said that his idea fits with his attitude: if they throw him into the sea, he'll die and, as seen later in his account, he'd rather die than see the Lord's work be done in Nineveh.) The men protest and try to find other ways to appease the Lord without throwing Jonah overboard to his certain death by drowning. Nice of them. But they eventually realize there is no other way. So they ask God not to hold it against them. Then they called on the LORD and said, "We earnestly pray, O LORD, do not let us perish on account of this man's life and do not put innocent blood on us; for You, O LORD, have done as You have pleased." (1:14) And they (man overboard!) chuck Jonah in the water.

And a big fish swallows him. That's the part everyone remembers. While in the belly of 'the whale,' Jonah gets right with the Man. He prays and praises the Lord, and promises to obey:

"But I will sacrifice to You
With the voice of thanksgiving
That which I have vowed I will pay
Salvation is from the LORD." (2:9)

And the fish pukes him out on a beach near, ta-da: Nineveh. The Lord repeats Jonah's charge, giving Jonah a second chance to give the people of Nineveh a second chance. I'll deal with the rest of Jonah's story some other time, because it would take me too far off topic to go there now. (His later antics are, to me, a riot. Maybe some other blog I'll get into them.)

So here's the thing: When God wants His Will to be done, you can betcha His Will's gonna get done. I like to call Jonah "The Reluctant Prophet," even though that's an understatement. And despite that Jonah eventually did preach the Lord's warning in Nineveh, my point here is this: What was Jonah's first instinct? He ran.

Part Two

Moses: But, But, But, But, But....

Like I said before, everyone knows about Moses. If one of the late night TV talk shows like Letterman or Leno or Conan did one of those silly man-on-the-street segments asking people about him, I figure most would be able to mention something for which Moses is 'famous.' And that's taking into account that often in those segments some people struggle to name the President.

Not to force a bad segue, but that does bring us to the Burning Bush event, which is the moment of the Calling of Moses. Yes, God appears to Moses as flaming vegetation, and charges Moses to go to Egypt and be the Lord's instrument in convincing Pharaoh to release the children of Israel from the land.

Objection #1: Moses is all: "Who am I that you would pick me? I'm nobody!" Be that as it may, the Lord effectively dismisses the question. 'Yeah I know, whatever with that, I'll be with you and you'll be serving Me.'

Objection #2: Moses is all: "Well who should I say You are? I mean, I know you're God, but when I go tell them God sent me, they're going to ask me for proof. They're going to be like, 'God, you say? Oh yeah? What's His Name?' Then what am I supposed to tell them?" God's answer is famous, and basically IS His Name: I AM WHO I AM. Can't get more cut and dried than that (even though the theological/philosophical ramifications of what He said is a fascinating study).

Objection #3: Moses, testing the Lord's patience like I'm probably testing yours with the length of this, says, "Well, what if they just don't believe me. What if they say, 'Yeah, right, you saw God; uh-huh, and I can buy a grilled-cheese sandwich showing the Virgin Mary on EBay, too!' " (Okay, the Virgin Mary hadn't been born yet...and there was no EBay yet...or grilled-cheese sandwiches for that matter.) Still, God evidenced great patience with Moses and showed him that He would turn the staff that Moses carried into a snake in the presence of those who did not believe. And God would also provide Moses with two other miraculous signs to perform as proof. GREAT! We done? Nope. (Hey, blame Moses not ME!)

Objection #4: Moses stammered, "But I'm not a good public speaker!" No kidding? The Lord says, 'Dude, focus. I can turn your staff into a snake. I can make the blind see and the lame walk. I CREATED the mouth and the concept of speech! I can handle this, and I will help you speak. Now go already.'

Objection #5: Having run out of excuses, Moses flat out begs..."Please send someone else!" The Lord replies, "Your brother Aaron will go with you." Which, if you didn't get the implication in that, means: You're still going. Grab your hippity-hops and get moving.

(This whole account is shown in Exodus 3 & 4...and if you go read it, it'll be obvious I'm having fun paraphrasing. And if it isn't already obvious WITHOUT you reading Exodus 3 & 4, that's really all the more reason you SHOULD go read Exodus 3 & 4!)

I don't know about you, but I'm exhausted! I was waiting for Moses to start breaking out even more desperate excuses, like "But I have a hangnail!" or "I'm allergic to Egypt!" Man alive, you'd have thought God said, "Moses, eat Brussels sprouts!" (Okay, I might have put up a bigger battle on that.) Good thing there were no airplanes back then, because he could have tried, "What if I get held up by security and miss my flight?"

So Moses goes. Now, there's no denying Moses was a great prophet and wonderful servant of the Lord. There's a reason he was trusted with the Law and appeared at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-4). When the chips were down, he trusted God and was a leader to His people. The Lord has often used the weak and made them great, and Moses is no exception. But the point is his first instinct: Excuses.

Part Three

Isaiah: Pick Me! Pick Me!

Isaiah means "the Lord is salvation," and he is quoted in the New Testament more than any other Old Testament prophet (over 65 times). Pastor John MacArthur notes that Isaiah's "writing style has no rival in its versatility of expression, brilliance of imagery, and richness of vocabulary." (I gotta wonder if he's including Shakespeare in that comparison, or if he only means Biblically.) Either way, there's no denying Isaiah is a stud of Prophetic Scripture.

When Isaiah is called to be a prophet, he sees a vision of the Lord sitting on a throne surrounded by seraphim (angelic creatures). He believes himself undone, because he is a sinful man (aren't we all?) in the presence of the Lord's Glory. But his sin is purged in that moment, and the Lord then asks "Whom shall I send, And who will go for Us?" And Isaiah's answer touches me. He says, "Here am I! Send me!" (Isaiah 6:1-8)

I imagine him standing, hand raised, perhaps on his tiptoes, as if trying to be noticed from within a crowd, even though no crowd is if the Lord is surveying the entire world and Isaiah is trying to stand out in that moment from everyone and be chosen. I love this passage of Scripture, because I dig the image. It's like a child in the front of class, trying to get picked to answer the question. It's like the character of Horshack from the mid-70's TV sitcom "Welcome Back Kotter," squirming in his seat with his hand elevated as high as possible, screaming "Ooooh! Ooooh! Ooooh!"

So what's the point, Rich? We've read all this, we've come this far, what's the POINT?

This all came to me late last year (well the basic idea came to me, and I did some research for a few details). I was at Bible Study in December. And I had a moment where I tried to illustrate how I felt about my faith and where I was with my Walk. I had one arm outstretched reaching for the Word, and the other arm stretched the other way, my fingers dug in and holding me back, holding onto the World and all the things I'm resistant about giving up in my life. But I need to let go of some things; and I'm trying, slowly, perhaps one finger at a time, letting loose of that grip and allowing myself to reach God's Word and the study of it more fully. Basically, I feel like all last year I was being slowly prepared, being led towards the ministry. (I mean as a pastor, not just any of various worthy ministries of service within the Body of Christ.) And I didn't want it to be ME deciding to just go into the ministry, because I knew the ministry isn't something you should decide to do, it's something you're called to do: And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. (Romans 8:28) And if called, I knew I should try to be actively ready. As a disciple, I should be better instructed in the Word anyway. But as someone who may end up in ministry, I knew I would have to embrace where I was being led. And to embrace it, I would also have to let go of some things.

And then, just after explaining the image with my outstretched arms on the couch there at Bible Study, the three prophets came to mind.

Jonah, who when called, first Ran.

Moses, who when called, first gave Excuses.

And Isaiah, who, when God basically asked for a volunteer, said "Ooooh Ooooh PICK ME! PICK MEEEEE!!!"

I once heard it said that Availability is the state of being ready for use. So if I'm right about being led towards the ministry, I can only pray and prepare. I'm not expecting to be greater than Moses or Jonah, but I want to be like Isaiah: if My Lord calls on me, I want to be ready and willing and able, and excited, to obey.