First Mennonite Church
September 2, 2018
“Surrendering: A Hard Thing to Do” (By Steve Ratzlaff)
Text: Jonah 1:1-17
I hope you don’t think for a minute that the story of Jonah is a fish story. No, here’s a story about a man who doesn’t want to do what God asks. Who won’t surrender to God.
In the very first words of the book, God says, “Hey, Jonah, I’ve got a job for you. Go to that great city of Nineveh. Cry out against that wicked city and all the nasty people who live there.”
So what does Jonah do? He gets up and he goes alright. He goes to the city of Joppa and he marches right down to the dock on the Mediterranean Sea. Then he hops aboard a ship that’s going in exactly the opposite direction. God says, “Go east to Nineveh.” Jonah heads west to Tarshish, which is somewhere around the Rock of Gibraltar.
The first chapter which was just read, lays out what happens. A storm arises on the sea. Jonah is thrown overboard to appease the storm. The Lord God sends a great big fish to grab Jonah and bring him back east, back to the shore where he started.
The fish coughs up this preacher after three days. Then God says for a second time, “Now, Jonah, get going to Nineveh. Go to that great city and do what I want you to do.”
Certainly this is a whale of a tale, but it is not a fish story. It is the story of a man who was called upon to do something for God and he doesn’t want to do it. A man who won’t surrender to God.
Surrendering to God is a hard thing to do. In all of my years as a Christian, surrender has been the most difficult. Because it means giving up control . . . and maintaining control, has, for me, been very important in my life. I’m not sure why, exactly, it just has. Perhaps it is a personality quirk, I just don’t know. It’s one of the reasons that I didn’t smoke pot in the 60s. It’s one of the reasons I don’t drink. It’s one of the reasons I don’t like to be put under anesthetic for surgery. It’s why I prefer to drive the car and not be the passenger. But, over the years, I have been getting better at surrendering, and believe me, I think it is one of the more important parts of being Christian. One way I have tried to help myself to surrender to God every day is through visualization. Each day I begin my day by picturing Jesus coming to the door of my house and knocking on the door and asking, “Ratzlaff, are you going with me today?” It’s been helpful for me to have some time each day where I consciously make that decision. It has also reminded me that surrender is very important in the Christian’s life.
My difficulties in surrendering are not that different than Jonah’s in that at times I, too, don’t want to let go of myself and do what God desires. I mean, what if God asks me to give up some of those things which I enjoy so that I don’t get too tied up in materialism . . . like my stamps or coins or trips to the coast – superfluous things that cost money and get in the way? Or how about my lifestyle . . . do I really need two cars, a $200,000 home, and a hefty retirement account? Am I willing to follow God if it means learning to live with less . . . to learn to live more with less.
Some of you are probably wondering by now, how I could take a story about a prophet who was swallowed by a whale and turn it into a sermon about surrendering our lives to God and overcoming our materialistic lifestyle? It is not really a stretch at all. Jonah didn’t want to do what God asked of him and he ran away. We don’t do what God asks of us when we ignore God’s insistent call to live simply and in line with the Bible’s teachings. We know all the stories: the lilies of the field and the sparrows who neither toil nor spin, the rich young ruler who turns away sadly when Jesus tells him to sell what he has and give it to the poor, the rich man, Dives, who lived an opulent life and neglected the poor servants in his own household. We all do this little dance with these scriptures and somehow rationalize that it doesn’t really apply to us because it is irresponsible to not take care of ourselves and our families. But the problem is that we don’t just take care of ourselves, we use the standards of our society to determine what it means to do this . . . a consumer society that moves us to live in excess. We conveniently ignore God’s commands to live simply, care for the widow and orphan, and fail to surrender ourselves to God’s desires.
Jonah had a problem. It wasn’t materialism. Jonah’s problem is with Nineveh, a city on the east bank of the Tigris River in Assyria. The Assyrians were not too popular in Israel because in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C., they plundered Palestine looting and burning its cities and deporting its inhabitants. In 722-721 B.C., the Northern Kingdom of Israel passed out of existence as a result of Assyrian conquest. In other words, to the hearers of the Jonah story, Nineveh was anathema, the object of intense hostility. For perspective, imagine an African-American being asked to go preach to the Ku Klux Klan. “Go to Nineveh,” says God. And Jonah says, “Anywhere, Lord; anywhere but Nineveh.” So Jonah stands on the dock with tickets for Tarshish.
Jonah really is a narrow-minded little man, a first-class nationalist who believed in Israel first. Jonah is a Zionist who, if he were alive today, would probably fight to the death for the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. He is one who sees Israel as the chosen people and the Gentiles can go to hell for all he cares. But let’s not be too hard on Jonah, for here we can see the complexity of human nature. We all have our enemies. For Jonah, it’s Ninevites. Even Jesus had enemies. Certainly he said love your enemies, but I think William Sloane Coffin is right when he says, “Love them as enemies. Let’s not be sentimental about this thing.”
Jonah is the man of gentle prejudice. He is not killing Ninevites or discriminating against them. He just doesn’t want to preach to them. He was this way because in the context of our story the Ninevites had destroyed his family. Out of the rubble of the Assyrian raids he crawls; out of the debris and destruction, and God says to him, “Go preach my word to Nineveh.” And Jonah says, “Anywhere, Lord, anywhere but Nineveh.”
Our own objections to God are more subtle. Anything, Lord, anything but my car, or my stocks, or my job, or my inheritance. We are not really opposed to surrender, I don’t think, we just want to be selective about it. We will surrender some things . . . Sunday mornings (at least twice a month), certain nights for committee meetings or small group gatherings, our monthly tithe, maybe a term of service with MCC . . . but more than that is pushing it. We certainly don’t want to give up everything. God surely wouldn’t ask for that.
There is a hymn, Just As I Am, Without One Plea, which has been commandeered by the evangelists and fundamentalists. It is sung at every revival meeting and altar call. And, I have to admit it isn’t one of my favorite hymns because of that. And the theology is such that I feel wretched when I do have to sing it. But it does capture the essence of surrender . . . “to be thine, yea, thine alone. O Lamb of God, I come.” This is not selective surrender. Selective surrender is a human problem. God asks for more . . . God asks for all of us.
Hopefully we get better at surrender as we spend more time with God . . . as we trust more. But does it mean that we need to surrender more of ourselves to make room for God?
One of my favorite stories is about a soldier who comes to the Teacher and asks for help. “I have mastered all of the martial arts,” he said calmly. “I have risen to the highest rank possible for a man of my training. I now wish to learn about God. Can you help me?”
The Teacher smiled and invited the man to have seat at the table. “Let’s have a cup of tea,” he said, “before we talk further.
After the soldier sat down, the Teacher began to pour tea into the man’s cup. He filled the cup and kept pouring until the tea was running over the table onto the floor. The soldier watched dumbfounded until he could no longer be silent. “Stop! It is full! The cup will not hold any more tea!”
Placing the teapot on the table, the Teacher said, “You are so full of yourself that there is no room for God. It is not possible for you to learn until you empty yourself.”
Any discussion of surrender must begin with talk about emptying oneself. We cannot surrender when we are so sure of ourselves that there are no questions to ask or no doubts about what should happen. Jonah could not surrender and go to Ninevah because he knew that they didn’t deserve a second chance. We will also fare no better unless we can understand that surrender depends on a willingness to let go, to empty ourselves, and let God lead. May we truly move that direction.
Steve Ratzlaff is a retired pastor from Community Mennonite in Fresno, CA.