Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Grace that gets under your skin

I love the book of Jonah. I love it because it shouldn't exist. God sends a prophet to preach but he runs the other way, has to be chased with a storm and swallowed by a fish before he's prepared to do what he was originally told to do. When he finally preaches in the evil city of Nineveh everyone repents. Everyone puts their trust in God. Quits sin and looks for mercy. That's at least 120,000 people seeking repentance in a day (3v9), and God grants repentance relenting from wrath towards them (3v10). I don't think you'd find an evangelist who wouldn't come in from that kind of days work and be absolutely exhuberantly overwhelmingly delighted.

And yet (4v1) Jonah is devastated. He's exceedingly angry. Makes you think why does God bother? Surely he could find a prophet who'd do the job and be glad when things turn out well. But this prophet is furious. Enough to die. And he has stern words with God for it. He states what we've all wondered since the beginning of the story. Why exactly had he run away from doing what God had asked of him. And the peculiar reason is because he knew that God would be gracious and save the city. For most evangelists that's the kind of motivation that gets them going. But not Jonah. Oh no. Jonah turns on God and reprimands him for this. He'd told God this would happen. He's warned him. He'd tried to save God from himself - he'd gone the other way in a clear signal that this was an unwise course of action for God. The LORD who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love apparently needs saving from himself. So says Jonah.

It's all too much. If God isn't going to destroy the Ninevites then the only other solution is for him to kill Jonah. And he says it. Angry enough to die. Put me out of my misery!

Meanwhile, there are 120,000 new believers in city. The obvious course of action is for Jonah to do what prophets do and teach the law to them. Not Jonah. He's off. But not westward for home. He goes east. And he sits down to watch. Waiting for God to see sense and destroy them after all. No follow up here. No care and discipleship. He wants them dead and he'll wait for it happen.

One way in which Jonah might have been right to be angry is the nagging question of the Old Testament. How can God just let them off. However, if that was Jonah's issue he should have been asking the same question about his own salvation - why hasn't God just gotten rid of him for his own rebellion. So, I don't think that's really Jonah's problem. That issue is resolved when Jesus comes along with every other outstanding question in the New Testament.

Jonah has miscalculated however because it's way too hot out by Nineveh. He builds some shelter but it wont keep the sun off. God provides a plant. Just as he'd previously provided a fish once more he models grace to the rebel preacher boy. Jonah is ecstatic. He rejoices. Then God takes the plant away. Jonah is once more angry enough to die. But this is all a lesson for him, and God graciously explains. Every step along the way of this story was an opportunity for God to smite Jonah but again and again he abounds in grace and speaks to Jonah.

There's a great little tangent of a lesson here about ministry in Gods' kingdom - he uses people like Jonah with screwed up motives and disobedient hearts and still gets his work done. We're not going to thwart the advance of God's gospel by being sinful losers. This strange Minor Prophet with only a few words of prophecy is a prophecy in it's entirity. Told in the life of Jonah. Worked out in his life as he takes the gospel to the nations.

The point is really simple. Jonah cares about a plant he didn't make grow. Shouldn't God then care about 120,000 people. And their cows. Not sure why. Maybe it's to help us see we can't know everything. Maybe it's because the cows should be dying as sacrifices in the city offered by these new disciples but Jonah just wants everything burnt. Maybe it's an appeal that if Jonah doesn't care about the people but does care about a plant, a cow is somewhere in between. I dunno. David Field : God cares for cattle

Nonetheless, Jonah knows God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. He knows. He can talk about it. He has the application all wrong. The kind of wrong that gets you nearly drowned and then covered in fish vomit. And then the book ends. It ends with a question. We're left hanging. We don't know how he responded. We know the answer to the question but then the book ends. Not even a Blairite flourish of "the end". Another cliffhanger.

Options - either Jonah repents or he doesn't. If not then the conversation should have ocntinued and it's hard to see how Jonah would tell the story like this. Either he'd have rewritten the history to make himself a hero or he wouldn't have told it at all. Most of all though the point wont be how Jonah responded - the question is left for the original readers and for us. Will we apply God's grace in a way that says we want evil people to receive it (people like us for a start), or not? The answer will be in our lives and it'll resound when Jesus retells the story as 'the sign of Jonah'.

For what it's worth I think Jonah repented. The book reads like he must have got it in the end. It humiliates him. All the way through he writes brilliantly, leading us to expect one thing but then getting under our skin with shocks and twists. I also suspect it's only after the end of the story, when Jonah has repented, that God whispers in Jonah's ear to tell the repentant prophet that the pagan sailors got saved too while he was sinking to the bottom of the Med. And if he really got it he'd have rejoiced over that as he went down to get teaching the new believers of Nineveh and write down the story of God's grace in his own life.

I work for UCCF and that means I can talk about God's grace until I drop. That's what we do. The question is, do I get it or am I just like Jonah?