For a couple of you this is still your present reality and for others it has been several decades, but do you remember getting in trouble as a child? Of course you do. We cannot forget. I am fairly certain all of us no matter how young or old we are, can remember two things. First, we can absolutely remember a time we got in trouble for something we totally did not do or deserve to be punished for. We remember that because the unfairness and injustice of it all sticks out in our mind. Second, we remember which parent we preferred to get in trouble with. Many parents, my wife and I included, try to be consistent when it comes to discipline, but the truth is since we are all individuals we approach things differently. This means, that we prefer to get in trouble with one parent over the other. I know for me, I would prefer to get in trouble by mom. She would yell some, send me to my room, and that was usually it. My dad though, especially as I got older, had a different approach. He would do two things. First, he would make us say what it was we did wrong. Excuses, non-apologies, and poor justifications were unacceptable. So if I hit my brother, and said something like “I was trying to keep him from hitting me first”, then I would have to try again. This would go on until I got it right; until I stated exactly what I did and why I did it. The next part was even worse, because he would ask what I think the consequence would be for whatever I did wrong. This was a no-win scenario. If I tried to low ball it, then he would call me out on it. He would then issue a punishment that is whatever I said only greatly amplified. The only other option was to go a bit more than I thought was fair to ensure I was not being too soft on myself. My dad did not always use this method, but when he did it was extremely effective, because it cut through excuses, pride, and selfishness. It caused me to actually reflect, recognize, and name my wrong doing. By making me name the punishment it also helped me realize that I had responsibility for my actions. I mention this, because when I read the story of Jonah, I have the same feelings of conviction and being in trouble that I had when I was little. Even though the story of Jonah is thousands of years old, it is one that I believe is especially convicting of the American church today.
The story of Jonah and the whale (or big fish if you want to be technical) is the last story that we will rediscover this summer. Just like Noah’s Ark and Daniel and the Lions’ Den, this is a story that we tend to tell to children because it has animals in it. In the children’s books that adapt this book of the bible, the moral of the story is often centered on being obedient to God. That is without a doubt part of this story, but as we consider Jonah, I think we will see this story has more to do with how God wants us to care about others as people of faith.
Along with having an animal in the story another reason why Jonah is often adapted into children’s books is because it is so short and self-contained. The story of Jonah is found in the book of Jonah, which is only four chapters long. The story can be summed up fairly quickly. Jonah, a prophet of God, is called to go to Nineveh. He is to preach to the city for the people to repent of their wickedness. Jonah does not want to, so he flees for Tarshish. God sends a storm that threatens to destroy the boat, and Jonah is thrown overboard at his request. God sends a great fish to swallow Jonah, and inside the belly of the fish Jonah prays and repents. He then goes to Nineveh, preaches, the people are convicted, and God spares the city of destruction.
That is the story we all know, but the details give a lot more context and depth to the simple story. First, we need to consider the locations. God called Jonah to minister to Nineveh. Nineveh is not just any city. It was THE city of the enemy, it was the wretched hive of scum and villainy. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. This militant and powerful empire was a powerhouse and bully of the region. Just 30-50 years after the date of the book of Jonah, The Assyrians would destroy, conquer, and exile the northern kingdom of Israel. A modern day equivalent would be God calling an American pastor to go minister and preach to the Jihadists in Afghanistan. For Jonah, this was the enemy. So in response to God telling him to go into the heart of the enemy’s territory he ran to Tarshish. Now we do not know where Tarshish is but the best guess is that it was located on the strait of Gibraltar in Southern Spain. This would have been the very edge of the known world and about as far away from Nineveh as Jonah could have fled. Not only did Jonah not want to go to Nineveh, but is willing to literally go to the ends of the earth to get away from there.
We could speculate as to why Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh, but fortunately we do not have to. In Jonah 4:2 he states exactly why he did not want to go. After Jonah is obedient to God, preaches repentance, and the Assyrians listen to his message Jonah is angry. God chose to relent and not destroy the evil city and this infuriates Jonah. Verse 4:2 states: “ Isn’t this what I said LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love., a God who relents from sending calamity.” The reason why Jonah fled from God was not because he was afraid or because he was afraid of self doubt. The reason why he fled and initially refused to go to Nineveh, is because he knew that God would forgive, he knew God would be compassionate, and he knew if the people turned to God they would not be destroyed. Jonah did not want this to happen so he fled, he wanted God to punish the Assyrians, and he wanted them to be destroyed. God called Jonah to a mission of mercy and love, and motivated by anger and hatred Jonah purposely ran from God was calling him to do. God drives this point home with Jonah at the very end of the book. After completing his assignment, Jonah waits around outside city to see if God will change his mind. While doing this God provides a vine, a plant with big leaves to shield Jonah from the sun. However, the next night God causes the vine to die, and Jonah is very upset it is dead. The point that God makes is that Jonah was more concerned with a plant he had no investment in than the lives of 120,000 people. God on the other hand, cares deeply about these people because God is their Creator.
This is why, for me, reading the story of Jonah feels like getting in trouble. As American Christians, this story shines light on some of our collective attitudes and short comings. The thing is, when Jonah was originally written it was revolutionary and unbelievably radical in what it was proposing. The ancient Middle Eastern world, was polytheistic. Every culture had their own gods, and they believed their patron deities were the only gods that had any care for them. What Jonah, and the other Israelite prophets advocated is that the God of Israelites, the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth, the great I AM, was more than just the God of Israel. They advocated that the LORD was the God of all, that the entire world was His dominion, and that God cared about all of it. This was no less of a radical belief 700 and some years after Jonah when Jesus met with Nicodemous and the gospel of John declares, “For God so loved the world that he sent his only son” The message of both the old and new testament, the core theme of Jonah and the gospels is that God loves and saves everyone: The whole world, all means all. The great commission given to us from Jesus was to make disciples of all the nations, not just the nations we like and look like us. All means all. This message that God loves everyone and that God cares for everyone, not just the special, the elect, or the chosen was truly radical in its day. This inclusive good news, is still the good news that this world needs. However, somewhere along the ways things have gone sideways. The message that God has been twisted one way and then distorted the other. The church as God’s people should be the flagbearers of the good news that God’s love for all truly does mean all. However for way, way too many people churches are viewed as groups that naturally exclude not include. Instead of seeing churches as places that mirror the foot of cross by always having grace and mercy available, we are seen as closed minded places of judgement. To put it bluntly when the world sees us, they are more likely to think we look like Jonah than Jesus. They think we would rather run away and watch them burn then sacrificially stretch out our arms towards them in love.
We are in trouble, and may not even be our fault. As an individual believer we may feel that we have not done anything to exclude non-believers. That may be true, but at the same time we have responsibility for baring some attitudes that help perpetuate the exclusionary image of the church. Even if we personally have not acted in a non-loving way to non-believers, we are unfortunately guilty by association. We also bare responsibility to turn the ship around, and get it right. We have responsibility to love like Jesus and not like Jonah. In order to do that we may have to give up certain thoughts or attitudes. For example, when it comes to Christians relating to non-believers outside of a church, a common phrase used is “love the sinner, hate the sin.” I understand where this comes from. I truly do. The bible says God loves all and the bible says God hates sin. God is fully capable of doing this, but I am not convinced we as disciples can. If we devote any energy to hate, I am not sure how well we can love at the same time. Part of the problem American Christians have in general, is that we have been very articulate in communicating the sins we hate, but we have done a poor job at loving. This is why an unbelieving world sees churches as hateful, close-minded, uncaring, and unloving places. Love the sinner, hate the sin, should not be our motto. Let’s drop the last five words or so and just focus on love. Once we have mastered loving our neighbor as ourselves, then we can worry about the rest of that phrase.
Now I realize the immediate objection one might want to raise to that. If we do not condemn sin as sin, then we will be seen as endorsing it. We will be seen as saying that living contrary to God is OK. Again, I can understand that sentiment, but Jesus died for both the godly and the ungodly. We are not the gatekeepers who get to decide who is in or out. To illustrate the point, Canadian Pastor Carrie Nieuwhof started off as a lawyer and he tells this story from law school: He had a panicked ethical dilemma. He was not sure if he could enter a not-guilty plea for someone who had told him he was guilty. The teacher told him, that it was a non-issue because of a client has confessed guilt then a lawyer is legally and ethically bound to enter that plea. This made him feel better, but the professor continued but all clients will say they are not guilty. He then asked “What if he says he is not guilty but you think he is, doesn’t that put you in a terrible bind?” The professor replied, “You’re confusing you’re role, Carey. You’re not the judge. You’re his lawyer. Your job is ethically, morally, and legally give him the best day he can possibly have in court. The judge will decide whether he’s guilty or not.” In the same way it is not our job to be the morality police, it is not our job to pick and choose who should come, and it is not our job to judge. The world already has a judge. A more perfect, fairer, more accurate, and more loving judge than we will ever be. Famous evangelist Billy Graham put it like this: “It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge and my job to love.”
The story of Jonah is one that should leave us feeling deeply challenged, and it causes us to really wrestle with some tough questions. It is easy for us to say that we will love people who come and try to be like us: to believe like us, act like us, and look like us. It is another thing to go and love people where they are at. God did not tell Jonah to wait for converted Assyrians to come to him, God told Jonah to go. Jonah chose to run away. While we may not physically run we still have the choice. We can choose to take the good news that God loves the whole world, that there is no sin too great to separate us from the love of God, and that anyone can be forgiven. Or we can choose to keep it to ourselves, we can choose to hate the sin, while proclaiming with our words we love the sinner. Enough of that. In 1 John 3:18, John wrote, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” May we as American Christians and as Edinburgh UMC claim this verse. May our actions prove the love of God. Let us treat the world, the community around us in such a loving way that our actions prove when the scripture says “For God so loved the world”, it means it. May we show that when it comes to the immense, unquenchable, and unchanging love of God all means all. Edinburgh UMC, may we be the church that loves our neighbors, makes disciples, and transforms our world.