Posted by: mikebackup | January 20, 2012

Being challenged by God’s grace

Jonah 3.1-5,10-4.11

1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

1 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3 And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 5 Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. 6 The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” 9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10 Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

A bit like our Genesis verses a few weeks back this is another part of the Bible that Christians debate over whether it’s divine truth through story or divine truth through historical fact. Of course you can sit in the middle and say it is part story and part history! What historical evidence we do have points to Jonah actually being written well after the 8th Century BC it is set, and probably in the post-exilic times of the Persian occupation (539-333 BCE)[1].

During that time the Jewish leader Nehemiah continued what Ezra had started, implementing social legislation and prohibiting Jewish intermarriage with foreign wives[2]. So when Jonah was probably written, the thought of God actually wanting to reach out and save anyone else other than Israel especially Assyrians (who had successfully attacked Israel in the 7th Century BC) would have gone very much against current thinking.

There’s a great deal that can be reflected on historically, but we’re going to concentrate today on how Jonah reacts. Let’s face it, he has the biggest sulk in the Bible, and typifies that saying of ‘throwing your toys out of the pram’. Jonah begins badly by being the only prophet in the Bible to directly disobey God. He eventually does as he is asked but through gritted teeth. He is then horrified at what God does next and actually saves the Ninevites! He thought they were going to get a good old piece of God’s wrath and be destroyed. But they change their ways and God changes his mind. God changing his mind is a very significant part of Jonah to note. No unchanging, got it all planned and in place God here. No, God reacts to human choices.

Jonah is not alone is his sulking in the Bible. I put him at number one, but here’s some other top ten entries:

Cain: Genesis 4.9 – “Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”

Potiphar’s wife: Genesis 39 – ” And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” 8 But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Look, with me here, my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my hand. 9 He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” 10 And although she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not consent to lie beside her or to be with her. 11 One day, however, when he went into the house to do his work, and while no one else was in the house, 12 she caught hold of his garment, saying, “Lie with me!” (Of course she goes on to get Joseph put in prison for not sleeping with her).

Naaman: 2 Kings 5.1-12 –
“10 Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” 11 But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage.”

Elijah: 1 Kings 19.4 –
“But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”

The rich young man: Matthew 19.16-22 –
“16 Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; 19 Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

We all sulk; get angry with each other and sometimes with God. Not only that, at times especially in anger we are tempted like Jonah to judge those who should receive grace and be saved by God and those that don’t.

Let me give you a challenging example froma recent news story

‘A heroin addict who subjected her toddler son to a shocking catalogue of neglect before leaving his corpse in his cot for months is facing life in prison after being convicted of his murder.

Kimberley Hainey frequently left 15-month-old Declan on his own in dirty nappies while she went out with friends or stayed at her boyfriend’s house for days at a time.

After his death, a court heard how Hainey, 37, continued to claim child benefits and lied repeatedly to family, friends and health workers in a bid to maintain the deception that her son was still alive.

Declan was last seen in public around July or August 2009, but his body was not discovered in his cot at his home in Paisley, Scotland, until March 30, 2010.

Experts estimate he had been dead for anything up to eight months.

……..the court heard that Hainey was drinking heavily and going out, leaving Declan home alone.

On one occasion, she was away for two days, leaving the toddler to fend for himself.

Tragic Declan was left in dirty nappies with no food or drink while Hainey was out enjoying herself.

By the time his badly decomposed body was found, pathologists were unable to ascertain how he died.

After the death, Hainey sold his clothes and toys to buy heroin. She left his body in his cot.

He was found by Hainey’s mother, step-father and aunt after they were told the child had failed to turn up for immunisations at the GP’s surgery and was going to be reported missing to social services. One health visitor tried to visit Declan seven times from the summer of 2009. She was dealing with 320 cases at the time, but eventually raised the alarm’[3].

            I first read this article via a facebook post. It was posted by a young Mum and the reactions were in many respects understandable – violent and full of hatred. How on earth do Christians react to a true story like that?

Our gut reaction may be like many and simply want her to rot slowly in prison. We may feel more compassion but feel the task is too daunting. How do you start to transform someone like that? Perhaps we’ll think that she will never come to Christ and will therefore receive her well-earned eternal punishment in hell.

Mentioning hell is important because many Christians, especially Baptists hold onto some notion of hell for those that don’t repent and ask for Christ to enter their lives. Regardless of your belief regards hell is not more of a challenge to believe that God will reach out to those we might be quick to condemn? Hell is an easy place to stick people we don’t like or don’t match our criteria of God’s saving grace. A bit like Jonah, who when looking at the Ninevites was an open and shut case – they were going to be destroyed.

You can’t prove or disprove hell, but is it not better to sit in the place where you are challenged by the enormity of God’s grace? God is most definitely bigger than our emotions and judgements.

If you feel stuck now, unsure on how to go forward there is a wonderful modern example – Martin Luther King. He overcame murderous hatred through love. Murderous hatred still ended his life, but by then the way of love had won. Out of any modern person he is an incredible person of God, because he chose the way of God, not the way of man despite the presence of terrible evil all around. The 16th January was Martin Luther King Day and it is so right that he is remembered and the God given spirit in which he lived is not only remembered but lives on to challenge us. Here is an affirmation of faith based on his writings[4]:

I refuse to believe that we are unable to influence the events which surround us.

I refuse to believe that we are so bound to racism and war, that peace, brotherhood and sisterhood are not possible.

I believe there is an urgent need for people to overcome oppression and violence, without resorting to violence and oppression.

I believe that we need to discover a way to live together in peace, a way which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of this way is love.

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. I believe that right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.

I believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.

I believe that what self-centered people have torn down, other-centered people can build up.

By the goodness of God at work within people, I believe that brokenness can be healed. “And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together, and everyone will sit under their own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid.”

Take a copy home and stick it on your fridge. Read it, believe and live it.

Prayers (adapted from Roots worship)

We have words to describe you, God,
and we have silence.
May our silence be bigger than our words. (pause)
We have creeds to define you God,
and we have silence.
May our silence be bigger than our creeds. (pause)
We have traditions that define you, God,
and we have silence.
May our silence be bigger than our traditions. (pause)
And in that silence,
may we come to you, O God, beyond words,
creeds and traditions, yet within it all.
We have silence to define you, God,
and we have love.
May we live in that love, greater than everything.

May we journey with Jonah to the places you call us,
to stand with the poor and the hurt and the homeless
and proclaim your love through our living.
May we pray for peace in the world,
by living as peacemakers.
May we pray for homes for all,
by welcoming the stranger in our community.
May we pray for the poor, by choosing to buy justly.
May we journey with Jonah,
with grace in our living, hope in our travelling,
justice in our sharing, and love in our being.

In new places we find new questions.
In new places we meet new ideas.
In new places we find out about ourselves.
In new places we grow.
In new places we learn from others.
In new places we share the same God.
Amen.


[1]           Leslie C. Allen, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament – The Books of Joel Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, 186 & Bernhard W. Anderson, The Living World of the Old Testament, 605-6 & James Lumburg, The Old Testament Library – Jonah, 31

[2]           Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, 301


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