Jonah and Me

The Port of Joppa

There are days when I sympathize with Jonah. The story of the prophet who ran from an assignment from God and spent three days inside a special creature God created for the occasion must have made an impression on my little boy too. In one of those moments for quiet reflection in church he felt obliged to rescue the preacher from embarrassing “dead air.” He stood up on the pew and shouted in the most authoritative voice a three-year old could muster, “God said to Jonah. ‘GO TO NINEVEH!!’” Everyone laughed. Perhaps we should have listened.

Sometimes it feels like God gives me a “GO TO NINEVEH!” command and, like Jonah, I suddenly have a desire to check out vacation rentals in Iceland.

Our minds tend to snag on the big fish part of the story. (My little boy did a hilarious impression of a barfing fish when he got to this bit, after Jonah changed his mind and the creature regurgitated him on land.) It is not until the final chapter that we learn the reasons why Jonah zipped over to Joppa to board a ship heading elsewhere.

The Assyrians in Nineveh (an area on the outskirts of a city now known as Mosul in Iraq) had a reputation for being a highly militarized society who humiliated those they conquered. They treated captives with particularly nasty cruelty. It didn’t take a prophet to see them as a serious threat to neighbouring countries. Jonah didn’t run because he didn’t want disaster to befall them. He ran because he was afraid disaster would not befall them.

The Ninevites heard the message and took it seriously. They admitted their wickedness and dramatically demonstrated a desire to change. They repented. God relented. It’s not until the final chapter that we hear a re-cap of Jonah’s earlier discussion with God.

“This change of plans greatly upset Jonah, and he became very angry. 

So he complained to the Lord about it: ‘Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish!

I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. 

Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.’”

The Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry about this?

(Jonah 4:1-4 NLT)

Yesterday, someone said something to me which provoked thought about Jonah’s story. He said, “Prophecy is not fate. It’s not always set in stone. Prophecy can be an opportunity to align with God and actually change your future.”

Somehow it is easier to believe that those who hatefully oppose our political, cultural, or philosophical positions deserve disaster. God’s mercy messes up the plotline created in our vain imaginations. God tells us to leave revenge to him because, as illustrated in many Bible stories, his favourite form of revenge is transformation, redemption, restoration and renewed relationship.

Jonah resents God’s response. Not only did the Creator change the future of the people of Nineveh by not wiping them out, the action left a dent in Jonah’s pride as an accurate prophet when what he predicted did not happen.

In a culture where a web search for films with revenge themes turns up a list 44 pages long and a list only one page long for films with forgiveness or redemption themes, mercy is obviously not our usual response to offense. When we demonstrate, through acts of every day cyber-revenge like boycotts, cancellation, banishment, and censorship, that the acknowledgement of being right holds more value than the search for God’s truth, we have to admit we are not seeking restorative justice motivated by love.

God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts. All of us have rebelled against his ways. After three days and nights of less than stellar accommodation, Jonah confessed and asked for forgiveness for his rebellion and decided to obey God. That act made a way for the people of Nineveh to do the same.

This morning I read Psalm 32. This was King David’s experience after acting in a cruel ungodly way himself.

Oh, what joy for those
    whose disobedience is forgiven,
    whose sin is put out of sight!
Yes, what joy for those
    whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt,
    whose lives are lived in complete honesty!
When I refused to confess my sin,
    my body wasted away,
    and I groaned all day long.
Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me.
    My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat. 

Finally, I confessed all my sins to you
    and stopped trying to hide my guilt.
I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.”
    And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone. 

Therefore, let all the godly pray to you while there is still time,
    that they may not drown in the floodwaters of judgment.
For you are my hiding place;
    you protect me from trouble.
    You surround me with songs of victory.

The last question God asked Jonah causes me to examine my own heart. God does not offer the cruel compassion of dealing with sin by justifying evil and leaving us to continue in hurtful ways with their eventual unpleasant consequences. He extends his love and mercy to offer a way out.

Now here is my confession. I didn’t want to write this. I’ve had enough doom and gloom God-is-going-to-get-you-for-that preaching in my life to receive a very distorted picture of God. I lost many years to an image of an angry vengeful deity before I realized Jesus Christ came to show us what the Father was really like. I didn’t want to risk being misunderstood or judged as unloving. I argued with him that the blogs I write about obedience don’t attract much response anyway. When I prayed about an alternate topic nothing came to mind. Blank. For nearly three weeks. Then it dawned on me that I was acting like Jonah and that I didn’t want to extend the same mercy to some people as he extended to me — and still extends to me when he points out my hurtful choices and I respond to a good Father’s correction.

Transformation, redemption, restoration and renewed relationship. That’s your revenge, Lord. Thank you for your great mercy.

Seeing the Gold

DSC_0291 (2)

When I awoke this morning, I watched gently falling snow transform my garden into a winter wonderland. By the time I showered, dressed, tied back hair desperately in need of a good cut, and made a thermos of hot coffee, snowflakes had morphed into rain. A giant serving of mushy porridgy slush replaced fresh deer tracks on a blanket of white on the street. Wet blobs of snow dropping from branches reminded me more of the glistening on the face of a toddler in need of a tissue than an invitation to a sleigh ride in the lane. Clouds seemed to slouch lower in the valley.

A day that started with Christmas card-worthy potential, photographically speaking, turned into a dull lull on this the shortest, darkest day of the year.

I decided to stay home. I put my camera away and instead plunked myself down to check out social media feed. Socializing there appeared to be as messy as the streets outside. Messier. The minions whose job it is to set up miscommunication, offense and division  apparently have been busy.

Troubles. Conflicts. Obfuscations. Insults. More dismal predictions. Hope sliding into the ditch.

Sadness wrapped itself around my heart. I stared out the window and remembered  another soggy winter day like this one. I know I took photos. I looked for them.

On that day I trudged through the woods looking for something out of the ordinary when I saw something out of the ordinary. Off the main path I caught the glint of a golden Christmas bobble hanging on a little tree.

People sometimes chop down little trees to take home for Christmas, but who decorates a tree and leaves it in the woods? When I asked around later, I learned some local people do this in memory of loved ones who no longer join them at the festive table. The forest provides a quiet place of remembrance for them to go. It felt like finding unexpected gold in the tearful territory of grief.

I’ve been meditating on Psalm 50 lately. I somehow feel it is important for the times we live in. In this psalm God tells his children he is about to deal with their lax attitudes toward sin. Perhaps the time has come to “have a little talk with Papa” and for an adjustment in attitude. The psalm begins with images of the beauty of his creative expression in nature and desire to communicate with us, but soon becomes somber.

“Do I need your young bull or goats from your fields as if I were hungry?
Every animal of field and forest belongs to me, the Creator.
I know every movement of the birds in the sky,
and every animal of the field is in my thoughts.
The entire world and everything it contains is mine.
If I were hungry, do you think I would tell you?
For all that I have created, the fullness of the earth, is mine.
Am I fed by your sacrifices? Of course not!
Why don’t you bring me the sacrifices I desire?
Bring me your true and sincere thanks,
and show your gratitude by keeping your promises to me, the Most High.” (verses 9 to 14 in The Passion Translation)

Then this golden invitation and promise (I hear it in a loving, gentle, yet firm Father’s tone):
“Honor me by trusting in me in your day of trouble.
Cry aloud to me, and I will be there to rescue you.” (verse 15)

He also speaks to the downright wicked, those who disregard his words and think they can continue to get away with crimes against humanity. It includes serious warnings not to mess with him or take him for granted.

“The sins of your mouth multiply evil.
You have a lifestyle of lies,
devoted to deceit as you speak against others,
even slandering those of your own household!
All this you have done and I kept silent,
so you thought that I was just like you, sanctioning evil.
But now I will bring you to my courtroom
and spell out clearly my charges before you.
This is your last chance, my final warning. Your time is up!” (verses 20 -22)

It ends with another appeal and a promise.

“The life that pleases me is a life lived in the gratitude of grace,
always choosing to walk with me in what is right.
This is the sacrifice I desire from you.
If you do this, more of my salvation will unfold for you.”

There it is, like an unexpected beautiful tree of remembrance of a loving relationship hidden deep in the woods on rainy day. This is what his heart desires.

“A life lived in the gratitude of grace.”

This is not about behaviour, or rules, or sacrifices. The way out of the mess we find ourselves in is to renew our relationship by turning to our Maker with gratitude, by receiving his empowering grace to be all he sees when he looks at us, and trust in him in the day of trouble.

He is our hope. He has a plan for our good, because he is good and because he loves us more than we can ever imagine.

DSC_0287 (2)

The old carol says: “Long lay the world in sin and error pining, ’til He appeared, and the soul felt its worth.”

Come, Lord Jesus. Be born in us today.