Gleanings from the Bible: Jonah

Of all the lessons we could remember from the book of Jonah, the part which has caught people’s imagination and prompted most discussion is one of least importance.

I have no problem believing that the God who created the universe could prepare a large fish to swallow a man and preserve him intact, but it’s hardly the point of the story. There is far more to Jonah than that.

Jonah was sent to his enemies.

The Assyrians were a terrible threat. They were the superpower of the region that eventually destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel, took them into exile, scattering them to such an extent that they never really recovered their identity. Those ten tribes were lost. And it is to Assyria’s capital, Nineveh, on the Tigris River, that Jonah is sent to call on its king and inhabitants to repent.

Jonah goes on a cruise

Jonah appears to be heading for Spain, the opposite end of the Mediterranean, a sea cruise instead of a hot, dry, dusty inland slog. This is not simply a case of ignoring God’s command or failing to hear his voice.  It’s open rebellion!

God’s will is irresistible

It’s not that we can’t say “No” to God, it’s just that when we do there are consequences! It seems that God will apply extra pressure on some people to get the job done. The person who is sensitive to God’s promptings can never feel at peace when he or she is not complying. Jonah knows instantly why the storm is threatening their lives. He’s not casting around wondering, “Why is God allowing this to happen to me?”

The fish is an act of grace

It seems as if Jonah has abandoned himself to his fate when he asks to be thrown overboard. He realises that he can at least save the lives on board the ship and that he cannot escape God’s displeasure. I suppose he expected to die as a punishment.

But God preserves his life, gives him time to reflect and realign his life, and puts him back on land for a second chance.

The point of the story

So Jonah travels to Nineveh, and preaches a message of repentance to his enemies, hoping that the citizens will take no notice and be wiped out by God. Amazingly though, they do repent and God spares them, just as he spared Jonah. And Jonah is furious!

And here is the confession which shows us Jonah’s heart…

“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”  What is Jonah saying? “You, God, are merciful, but I am not!” Jonah is not like his God. He is angry enough to want to die! He is more angry over a shade tree dying, leaving him exposed to the sun, than he is about a whole city being destroyed.

God’s statement at the end sums it up…

Should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left?       

The Application

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures is has always been obvious, but rarely acted upon, that the message of God’s Kingdom is for the Gentiles as well as the Israelites. The good news of God’s kingship was meant to be blessing to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3), friend and enemy alike. And now the inheritors of the Old Testament Covenantal promises are given the same task of taking the gospel into the whole world (Matthew 28:19-20). To the family member that you haven’t spoken to in ten years, to the neighbour who throws rubbish over your fence, to the Asian family playing foreign music loudly across the road, to the Muslims whose faces you can’t see, to the homeless people occupying the park, to the criminals of every sort in the local gaol, to the extremists in the Gay Community, who tried to put you out of business because you did not approve of their lifestyle.

We may feel angry

but God says,

Should I not have concern?      

Who are we like in this story?     

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Gleanings from the Bible: Obadiah

Obadiah addresses Edom, Judah’s neighbours south of the Dead Sea, and warns them that the Day of the LORD is near, a day of judgement. Edom is accused of gloating over Judah’s demise in the face of what was probably the Babylonian conquest and Exile. Confident in their own security Edom would have meted to them what they had meted out. Their deeds would return on their own head!

It’s a classic case of the perpetuation of bad feelings and the results of unforgiveness. It seems to have continued for almost 1500 years, starting with Esau selling his birthright to Jacob, and Jacob deceiving their father, Isaac into blessing him rather than his older brother. Since then, despite the wary meeting of the two many years later, no love was lost between the two peoples descended from them. Even at best it was an icy standoff.

How different it might have been in that family, riddled with deception, if Jacob could have trusted God to give him the inheritance instead of scheming to take it, or if Esau had recognised his own foolishness and truly forgiven Jacob, or if somewhere along the line their leaders could have come together and formed an alliance of peace.

The world is full of conflicts which are the result of centuries old disagreements, perpetuated by alienation and mistrust. And we throw up our hands in despair that they will ever find the peace out of the wars and destruction. Of course it does take forgiveness but it also takes humility, the ability to suffer short-term loss of face to gain long-term reconciliation.

And while we despair over the conflict areas in the world, upon reflection we see ourselves in those situations. When we treat the foreigner as alien, less civilised, less law abiding, something other than us. Or when we do the same with other Christian denominations or dioceses, perpetuating decades old rifts with our anecdotal gossip of how someone treated us so badly all those years ago. When we tar all those people with same damning brush, believing that nothing good can come from their direction.

It is so well known now that grace and forgiveness are powerful agents for peace, not just between people and nations, but also within oneself. And yet we still harbour thoughts of vengeance, like holding on to a bad habit that gradually destroys everyone involved, or like a suicide bomber killing others and himself (but with no resurrection to a beautiful garden flowing with rivers).

Obadiah finishes his short address with, And the kingdom will be the LORD’s.

That’s where it will end. God’s Kingdom will triumph. But the final triumph was achieved through the ultimate loss of face, the ultimate humility, of Christ humbling himself, taking on the form of a servant and becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross.

And so as Paul exhorts us, Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus. (Colossians 2)