Monday, September 8, 2014

grace





Any idea what story this is?
I imagine the big fish will be a big clue although seeing the little Playmobil man swallowed whole should be a pretty big help too.
Got it?
No?
It's the story of Jonah.
It's one of my favorite stories from the days when I sat on tiny painted plywood chairs and listened with all the other fidgety four and five year olds in Sunday School. 
Back then, it was just a story about obeying. Or rather the danger of not obeying depending on where the teacher placed the emphasis.
To come to that conclusion though, the one about obedience, is to miss the amazing truth the story holds about who God is.
The truth that God will do anything He can to keep from punishing or judging us. That His love drives Him to take extreme measures, even supernatural ones at times, just to help us, His cherished creation.
A lot of people don't really think about God much.
They are in this story.
There are others that are sort of superstitious and afraid of God.
They are in this story too.
And there are some who know God, have even come to think of Him as a Father, but don't want to be like Him. Not if it means forgiving someone they think doesn't deserve to be forgiven.
That person is in this story too.
And God is in this story.
And He can't help giving away who He is in the telling of the tale either.

The story begins in the middle which is often the best place to begin.
Jonah knows that God wants him to travel to Nineveh and tell the people living there that God has seen their overwhelming wickedness. It was the sort of evil that would make the evening news and call for action from the UN if it happened today. And of course, it does happen today.
Jonah knew that God wanted him to offer them all His forgiveness.
Repent or else is kind of how I always thought the story went.
Repent is an old fashioned word, but it really just means to stop, and turn away.
To stop and change direction.
Being offered the chance to change and be forgiven is gracious.
Jonah did not share God's gracious outlook.
He bought a ticket on a ship heading in the opposite direction.
There could be no misunderstanding his intent.
He was NOT going to go to Nineveh.
And that was that.
Except it wasn't.
God had a job for Jonah to do.
He could have just asked someone else to go, but he graciously allowed Jonah to be part of the story.
The Master of the wind and waves sent a huge storm.
The ship was caught up in a terrifying gale with mountainous waves and howling winds.
The men on board could tell that this storm was not a normal storm, but had a supernatural horror about it.
They were terrified.
Jonah told the men to throw him overboard.
He figured that God was angry with him and was trying to kill him.
He figured that innocent sailors would pay with their lives too.
He figured wrong of course.
He misjudged God.
The storm wasn't sent to harm Jonah, but to get his attention.
I imagine that if Jonah had just repented, the storm would have died down and he could have gotten on the next ship heading to Nineveh....... and he could have spared himself the close encounter with nature that he experienced next.
The Bible says that God prepared a 'great fish.' And it swallowed Jonah when he was thrown into the sea.
God could just as well have provided Jonah with a nice big chunk of driftwood but I guess there is something about being swallowed whole by a 'great fish' that causes a person to reevaluate their choices in life.
Jonah did and it didn't take him long to repent.
And he really meant it.
And he was ready to listen.
And to do what God wanted him to do.
The fish burped Jonah out onto dry land and with that running start, Jonah traveled to Nineveh.
His words rang with authority when he told the people that God would not take no for an answer. His eyes likely flashed with passion as he spoke of God's power.
It doesn't surprise me at all that the entire city stopped in their tracks and listened just as Jonah had feared they would.
And they repented.
Joyously.
Grace can do that.

The story has a postscript.
Jonah was exhausted.
No surprise there.
The Bible says God provided him with shade from the desert heat.
A place of refreshment.
Ahhh, now that's more like it, you might think.
Except God wasn't finished.
Jonah's heart was not beating with the compassion of God yet.
And so, the storyteller tells us that God sent a worm to chew on the vine that sheltered Jonah from the heat and it shriveled and died.
Jonah was indignant and depressed and very, very hot.
I love how the story ends.
God Himself reasons with Jonah, like a parent with a moody child.
Nineveh was a huge city teaming with people.
The poetic language refers to the many children living there as those who couldn't yet tell their right hand from their left.
How could Jonah care more about a vine, about the fate of a plant, than the fate of an entire city of people?
How could he not feel pity for them and wish for them to experience grace?
I am guessing that Jonah came at last to understand the heart of God.
We have his story. 

When Jesus was trying to prepare his followers for His death, He spoke of the story of Jonah. He told them that just as Jonah had been in the belly of the fish for three days, so He would be in the grave for three days. His life was a story of grace. And of extreme, even supernatural measures. Remember Bethlehem?
Beginning with the story of the baby in the manger is the middle of the story, but its the best place to begin.

4 comments:

Cathy said...

Glenda, I love your retelling of the story of Jonah. This is my second encounter with this story in as many days....hmmmm....I think I need to pay attention to its message. I'm sure there's something in there I'm to see right now in my life that I've been missing.

Do you teach Sunday School? I'm sure you'd have your students riveted in their chairs listening to every word.

Glenda said...

I'm glad you liked the story. I smiled when I read about it being a second encounter. I have come to call that sort of serendipity 'the message of the week,' because I often find myself tripping over the
message several times. A sort of emphasis. Cool.

Shari Morehouse said...

I loved this! I'm not sure I have ever thought of the story of Jonah as God's pursuit of us nor of his trying everything NOT to punish us. Another one to add to your surely growing pile of stories that could/should be in a book...

Shari Morehouse said...

I love this. Such good lessons from a simple Bible story. Hmm, this should be added to your pile of stories to put into a book someday soon.