Monday, June 13, 2005

Sacrament talk

Following is the talk I prepared for Sacrament meeting yesterday. I paraphrased a bit as I spoke, but stayed pretty close to this:

Brothers and sisters,

I’ve been asked to speak to you today regarding missions. As I prepared this lesson, I pondered on why it is that missions are so important.

Matthew 12:36-37 says:

36 But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.
37 For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.

I pray that the Lord will give me the words that you need to hear today. Please forgive me if I misspeak.

In the Old Testament, a “wise woman” who understood the nature of God’s mercy said the following:

14 For we must needs die, and are as water spilt on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again; neither doth God respect any person: yet doth he devise means, that his banished be not expelled from him. (2 Sam 14:14)

It is for this purpose that God called Jonah to preach to Nineveh, a city full of people ripe for destruction, but people whom nevertheless God had prepared to hear His word.

I’d like for you all to pull out your scriptures and turn to Jonah. It’s a very short book, so you should be able to follow along pretty easily. Everybody knows the story—especially if you watch Veggie Tales—but the scripture itself provides important insights that I wouldn’t want you to miss.

While you’re pulling out your scriptures, here's a brief history lesson:

In Jonah’s time, Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, and was described as “an exceeding great city of three days’ journey.” If we take this to mean the time it would take to walk around the city, then it has a circumference of about 60 miles. Nineveh rested on the eastern bank of the Tigris River, across from the modern city of Mosul, Iraq. Modern translations of Genesis state that it was founded by Nimrod, the great-grandson of Noah. Nimrod (according to the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus) was a tyrannical dictator, who convinced his people that their happiness came from their own courage and that submission to God was a sign of weakness, and oversaw the building of the Tower of Babel so that if God decided to send another flood it wouldn’t be able to reach to the top of the tower. This all happened long before the time of Jonah, but I thought a little background would be nice.

Located midway between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, Nineveh benefited greatly from trade in the area and grew into a great city. We see a classic example of the pride cycle here, where the people of Nineveh became so great that they turned to evil ways.

So God asked Jonah to leave Israel, where he was loved and respected, and go to preach to a very wicked people in a distant land. We can only guess at what Jonah was feeling when he received his call. Why did he flee? Nobody likes to be told that they’re being evil; perhaps he was afraid that he would be killed, or imprisoned in Nineveh long enough to witness God’s wrath firsthand. I know I’d be a little apprehensive about walking into a city that I knew was going to be destroyed in 40 days. Or maybe Jonah didn’t want to give the people of Nineveh a chance to repent. It wasn’t a matter of laziness; in order to escape his mission call, he tried to sail away as far as he could in the other direction. The way he acted, we almost have to wonder if he wanted Nineveh destroyed and figured that preaching would only give them a chance to escape the wrath he felt they deserved.

Whatever his reasons, Jonah did what he could to get away and learned that, in the end, you really can’t run away from God. He was swallowed by a “great fish,” which we generally understand to be a whale, and he lay in the belly of the whale for three days.

Now, take a moment to imagine what that must have been like, laying for three days, breathing the rank gases inside this whale, probably lying in a solution of sea water and digestive juices of some sort, tosses about by every movement of the whale in the sea. Even had he dared open his eyes, there would have been no light to see by, neither from sun, nor moon, nor stars. It must have been hell! It’s no wonder in chapter 2, he says, “out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice.” The word he used there for “hell” is the Hebrew word for the spirit world. Jesus later compared this three-day period to the time that He would be in the spirit world after His temporal death. Jonah understood that he had sinned, and that if he had died at that point he would have been experiencing the anguish of the spirit prison. But when he was vomited out onto dry land, he realized that it was by the grace of God that he was saved from death.

In this experience of an unwilling prophet, we can catch a glimpse of God’s plan for all people. The fact is, we all are sinners. We do things we know we are not supposed to do, and we think thoughts that we know are not of God. And yet, for those willing to submit themselves to God’s will, He has extended a hand of mercy. Will our sins be without consequence? No. There are always consequences for sin, and we find that—in this world or the next—our sin will cause us to experience the anguish of having turned from our God: the anguish of being separated from His light. And yet, by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we have been saved from death. We will be saved from temporal death—where our spirits were separated from their bodies—because Christ exercised power over his own death to become resurrected. And because Christ atoned for our sins, we can also be saved from a spiritual death—where our spirits are separated from our Heavenly Father.

After this experience, Jonah traveled into the heart of Nineveh and told the people there that God was going to destroy them in 40 days. They believed, fasted, and repented. So why wasn’t Jonah happy? It sounds to me like he was bitter about the fact that God was willing to relent. Maybe he was upset because God had led him to issue a prophecy that hadn’t come true. Or maybe he hated the people of Nineveh so much (whether because of their past deeds, or simply because they weren’t Hebrew) that he didn’t want them to receive God’s mercy. As we have seen at several points in scripture, God used the example of a plant to represent human beings. He showed Jonah that these plants bring Him joy when they grow strong, but that there is a worm that causes them to sicken and die, which brings Him great anguish. Jonah felt more remorse for the loss of a little plant than he did for a city of over a hundred and twenty thousand people!

Brothers and sisters, we have all been called to preach to the world: “Every member a missionary.” But in order to really live this commandment, our actions must stem from a desire to rescue our fellow man. When we truly come to believe in the worth of souls, how can we desire anything but to stamp out the worm that is plaguing them? Brothers and sisters, ask God to help you to develop a greater love and compassion for your neighbors.

I will be leaving in mid-August, and after a short time in the MTC I will go to share the good word of our Lord’s mercy with the people of Paris, France. In the past, I’ve had many occasions to laugh at the many ways in which the French are different from us, but when it all comes down to it, they are just as much the sons and daughters of God as you and I. Please pray for me as I prepare myself to serve this mission, that the Lord might move the hearts of those I teach, and that I will have enough of a Godly perspective to appreciate the results. Also, please make a serious and concerted effort to share the gospel with those around you, and to act as a sign of God’s compassion for them. Even if it’s just a matter of bearing your testimony to someone that needs to hear it. As you do this, know that you and the world will be greatly blessed because of your obedience. Just as we need to show our faith in God by acting on His word, we also need to show our love for one another by sharing with them those things which bring us joy.

I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
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