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On Leaving Joppa/Remembering 9-11

September 11, 2011
Sermon:  On Leaving Joppa
Text:  Jonah, Acts 10


Joppa, located south of Tel Aviv, is an interesting place.  One of the oldest harbors in the entire world, Joppa is now a refuge only for a small fishing fleet.  I have been there on each of my two trips to Israel.  The first time I visited Joppa, I had the best piece of grilled Norwegian salmon I have ever tasted in my life.  The Palestinian who prepared it sure could cook!  The second time I traveled to Israel, I was determined to return to that same restaurant.  Some of you were with me on that trip.  I told our tour guide, a man named Saleba, that I wanted to go back to Joppa to that restaurant.  He knew it well.  I ate eggplant parmesan on that visit, and it, too, was delicious.

Saleba ordered a tall water pipe with his meal.  He invited others in our group to smoke with him, but no one took him up on his offer.

When he invited me to smoke with him, I asked, “Saleba, what’s in that water pipe?”

“Nothing that is illegal in your country or in mine, just some fine Turkish tobacco.”

I took a couple of drags on the water pipe.  Much to the astonishment of some of you who were on that trip with me, I blew some smoke rings, one of those skills I learned at Furman University.  You will be glad to know that I did not inhale.

In biblical accounts, Joppa was also an interesting place because of two men:  the prophet Jonah from the Old Testament and the disciple Simon Bar-Jonah (Simon, son of Jonah) from the New Testament.  These two individuals could not be father and son because about eight centuries separate them.  Joppa was a point of departure for both men. 

You remember that Jonah is in Joppa when God tells him to go to Nineveh.  Jonah refuses and takes a slow boat to Tarshish instead.  Why would he not want to go to Nineveh?  Jonah was a Jew, after all, and no Jew had any reason in the world to go there.  Nineveh was at the heart of the Assyrian dynasty.  That empire had invaded the land of Israel and would later do even more damage.

Do you remember what happens after Jonah’s refusal and his attempt to hide from God by sailing to Tarshish?  A violent storm arises on the Sea of Galilee.  The sailors onboard the ship begin casting cargo overboard to lighten the load.  Finally deciding that maybe a person on the boat has done something wrong to cause such a fierce tempest, they draw straws to determine who was at fault.

When the short straw falls to Jonah, they ask, “Jonah, what did you do?”

He reveals, “God told me to go to Nineveh, but I did not go.  All of this chaos is because of me.”

“What shall we do?  What shall we do?”

Jonah directs them, “Throw me overboard.”  They do as he suggests, pitching him into the deep blue sea.

The Scripture says that God, who is not through with Jonah yet, sends an unlikely means of rescue.  God appoints a big fish to swallow Jonah and keep him in its belly for three days.  One of the greatest prayers in all the Old Testament comes from the belly of that fish.  Jonah 2 contains a magnificent prayer of confession and prayer for deliverance.  God delivers Jonah in a way that is most unsavory.  The fish vomits Jonah onto the beach.  Jonah is so bitter that even the big fish cannot stomach him for more than three days.  Jonah’s bitterness does not end there.

Simon Peter – living in the same little harbor town eight centuries later – also has a remarkable experience in Joppa.  The Scripture says that Simon Peter raises from the dead a woman named Tabitha or Dorcas who lived there.  Simon Peter stays in Joppa, a place he probably thought he would never stay.

I am always surprised by something I see at Myrtle Beach.  What surprised me most during the last time I went there was the huge number of tanning salons.  Why in the world would anyone travel to Myrtle Beach and go to a tanning salon?

Simon Peter stays at the home of Simon the Tanner while he is in Joppa.  No, Simon the Tanner was not running a tanning salon, and no, I am not talking about the way my daddy used to tan hides.  Why is it so surprising, so unlikely, that Simon Peter would be staying in that home?  Simon the Tanner tanned the skins of animals.  Just being in the vicinity of dead animals would make Simon Peter ritually unclean.

During his stay at this home, Simon Peter goes up on the roof to pray.  While there, he has a vision of something like a large tablecloth filled with a huge picnic spread, dropping out of heaven.  It is surprising that this spread includes not only foods Jewish people eat, but also many items Jewish people are not allowed to eat, food that they would ordinarily consider not kosher.  As if trying to make His point, God gives Peter that vision three times.

Peter argues, “Surely not, Lord!  Some of this food is unclean.”

God answers, “Peter, in my sight, nothing is unclean.”

I want to throw down a flare right here at this point in these stories from Joppa.  We will come back to this city in a few minutes.

Today is the tenth anniversary of 9-11.  I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing that Tuesday morning when I learned of the attacks.  I had just left the hospital, making visits to some members scheduled for surgery.  I got a phone call from Clare on what then passed for a cell phone, the very same one I later burned up in the microwave oven.  Some of you remember that story.  Clare said, “Kirk, when you get to the church, you need to turn on the television.  Something dreadful has happened.”

When I arrived at the church, a group, some sitting on the floor, had already gathered around a TV in the office.    Not only were staff members watching the events unfold but also people in the community who had come to the church because they did not know where else to go.  I arrived just in time to see the jetliner hit the second tower.  When I saw that, I knew that something dreadful was indeed happening.

The events of that day were confusing, confounding.  I will never forget seeing the dramatic change in President Bush’s facial expression when he learned of the attacks.  He was in a Florida classroom reading to students when an aid whispered in his ear the events that were occurring.  I prayed for our President in those moments.  I imagine you did, too.  We were all stunned and devastated when we learned that Al-Qaeda terrorists had turned our own commercial jetliners into instruments of war.  The violence of that day changed our lives forever.

Later that morning, I attended a meeting of civic club officers and offered a devotion to those few men.  The District Governor of that club, who happened to be in town for the day, asked me to say a few words before the meeting with the entire group later that day.  He said, “Please say something that will help us.  Give us some words that will lift our spirits, words that will give us some reason for hope.”  I prayed about what I would say, and the words of a hymn written in the sixteenth century by Martin Luther came to mind.  When I offered my prayer, the words became scrambled in my mind.

                      And tho’ this world, with evil filled, should threaten to undo us,
                     We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph thro’ us:
                     The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
                    His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure…

Then I went back to the first verse and recited it as best I could:

 A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing;
For still our ancient foe does seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great and armed with cruel hate…

I ended with these last words:

This body they may kill
God’s truth abideth still,
His Kingdom is forever.

So on this tenth anniversary, America pauses to remember.  We remember the mental image of the collapsing towers in New York City, the image of the burning Pentagon – a symbol of the strength of America – and the image of the field in Pennsylvania turned into a charred graveyard.  Perhaps more overwhelming than these images, which we have seen so many times, are the feelings of sadness and grief that we still carry to this day.

The media called the act of terrorism an “attack on America.”  It certainly was that, but it was not just an attack on America.  It was an attack on the entire world.  The forces of terror wanted to get the attention of the world.  They certainly did that.  In the World Trade Center alone, the 3000 victims who died included citizens of ninety different countries.  We have seen 6000 more who were casualties, who did not die and all of their families.  We also add all of those who have been wounded or died on battlefields in Iraq and in Afghanistan.  The horror that was unleashed that day will remain in our memories for a long, long time.

Today across this nation we will remember 9-11 in worship services, symphony concerts, baseball and football games.  Tonight, we will remember that day at community events and candlelight vigils like those at Gibbs Stadium and USC Upstate.  We remember the men and women who worked to rescue and recover, to nurse and feed, to hug and console the victims.  Some gave their lives in that effort.  Some became victims themselves.  Many others have since then become victims.

I heard an interview recently with General Colin Powell, who was the Secretary of State at the time of the attacks on 9-11.  General Powell, I think, feels as I do.  No one lives or suffers or dies in vain.  Some meaning and purpose is present in all that we endure.  General Powell says that at least two positive effects came out of 9-11.  First, America realized perhaps for the first time just how vulnerable we are.  Recognizing that vulnerability has made us more vigilant.  He also said that at least for a while, we were perhaps more united as a country than we had been in a long time.

General Powell also identified a negative effect that is so pervasive that it bears our attention.  He says that many of us have been so obsessed with our own fear, our own anger, even our own hatred and so preoccupied with revenge that we have not be able to respond with our best selves.  A vicious cycle is at work.  The motive behind terrorism is hatred.  Terrorism evokes fear.  Fear is the root of prejudice.  Prejudice creates adversarial relationships.  Those adversarial relationships promote hatred.  We, as Christians, must break this vicious cycle.  The one thing we must affirm is not easy.  We must affirm that the greatest power in this world is the power of love.

Let’s now return to Joppa.

God told Jonah, “Let’s try this again.  I am going to give you a second chance to go to Nineveh.”  Jonah still did not want to go.  He hated the Assyrians, as most Jews did.  Do you know that Nineveh was located across the Tigress River from Mosul, Iraq?  It was in the heart of a country we now see as a huge battlefield, a country identified as enemy territory.

God said, “I want you to go to Nineveh because if Nineveh does not repent in forty days, I am going to destroy them.”  Nothing could have pleased Jonah more, but he did as God directed.

When the king of Nineveh learned of the possible destruction, he put on sack cloth, placed ashes on his body, repented, and led the whole city to do the same.  With their repentance, God treated them with mercy.  Jonah knew God would treat them with mercy.

Jonah built a small shelter of some sort on a hill and sat to watch what would happen.  He waited, still bitter.  God caused a gourd vine to grow and cover the shelter, providing shade for Jonah.  Then the next day, God sent a worm, the Scripture says, to devour the gourd vine.  When the plant withered and died, Jonah informs God that he is angry with the vine.  The book of Jonah closes with God saying, “You have been concerned about the vine though you did not tend it or make it grow.  It sprang up overnight, and it died overnight; but Nineveh has more than 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left.  Should I not be concerned about so great a city?”  Jonah hated Nineveh, but God loved Nineveh.

Let’s turn our attention now to Simon Peter.  No sooner does Simon Peter have the last vision of a tablecloth loaded with food descending from heaven than three people knock at the door and reveal that they want him to accompany them up the coast to Caesarea Maritima.  About a two-day’s journey away, Maritima is the headquarters of the Roman army of occupation built by Herod the Great to honor Roman emperors.  Simon Peter goes right into the teeth of the enemy and speaks very boldly to the Roman soldier Cornelius, “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or even to visit him.”  Simon Peter is there, though, as he says, because “God has shown me that I should not call anything impure or unclean.”

Cornelius, so ready for Simon Peter and the word of God, has gathered his family and friends.  When Simon Peter tells them about the love of Christ, they all become Christians.  In Christ Jesus, these people are saved.

Then the Scriptures say that they invite Peter to stay with them a few days.  Get this picture:  an Italian and a Jew are staying together in the same house.  What a combination!  What do you think they ate?  I do not know, but I vote for shrimp scampi.

Through this experience, Peter realizes how true it is that God does not show favoritism.  God accepts people from every nation those who fear Him and do what is right.  Simon Peter is at first astonished that the Holy Spirit has come to these people but realizes that “God has given them the Holy Spirit just as He gave to us.”  Simon Peter has learned that nothing is unclean in the sight of God.

What do the stories of these two men in Joppa have to do with us?  Do you see that we can be so captured by fear and by hate that we lose sight of what God expects of us?  Recite the words of John 3:16 with me:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”  God so loved the whole world?  Red, yellow, black, and white?  Nineveh?  The Romans?  God loves everyone, and He expects us to be people of love.  Doing so allows us to conquer the fear and the hatred that would destroy us and make us like the terrorists.  If we are going to be Christians, we must allow love to win.

The words of South African Bishop Desmond Tutu have been especially important to me in recent days.

                        Good is stronger than evil.
                        Love is stronger than hate.
                        Light is stronger than darkness.
                        Life is stronger than death.
                        Victory is ours through Him who loves us.  Amen.

Do you know the love of God, fully revealed in Jesus Christ?  It is the only way you can have victory.  Have you accepted him as your Savior?  If you have never done that, could I invite you to respond this morning?  You know what God has laid on your heart.

Kirk H. Neely
© September 2011

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