I’m sure we’ve all heard our fair share of jokes recently about the whole Family Radio “Judgement Day” fiasco. And I’m guilty too, as I’ve made more than a few jokes regarding the impending rapture prophesied by Harold Camping. All of this has served to remind me that I am still much more cynic than saint. Today I am doing fine but many are not. My wife reminded me earlier that some people actually gave away all of their money and possessions because they thought May 21 was the end. Today, they have nothing and the world as they knew it is gone. It’s like “rapture” really did happen for them in some sad heartbreaking way. In the midst of all this, my hope is that we’d collectively learn to mock & laugh a little less, while we care for & help heal a little more. The following are some thoughts based on a series in Jonah that we taught at Fuel this past month. I hope it’s helpful in continuing this dialogue, both with yourself and with others.
Remember the story of Jonah? I remember it in flannelgraphs. It was one of my favorites growing up. Jonah is called by God, he runs away, gets swallowed by a fish, God rescues him from said fish. Yet another beautifully simple tale in a long series of stories I learned as a church kid. But the story of Jonah isn’t about a man getting swallowed by a big fish. That’s just a minor detail in a narrative that’s really about the shocking width and depth of the redemptive reach of God’s love. Jonah is about the deconstruction of classic religious paradigms and about the creation of a brand new paradigm: God loves the unloveable and chooses the unchosen.
Notice the sailors in chapter one. These are pagan, Gentile sailors. They don’t know God, much less worship him. And yet they are compassionate and kind. They relent in sending Jonah overboard even when he admits that the storm is his fault and that they’d be safe if they just threw him into the sea. The sailors refuse to compromise his life in order to save themselves. The story tells us that, “instead, the men did their best to row back to land.” (Jonah 1.13) When they see their efforts are futile and finally relent, these men are full of remorse. And they come to know God. We are told that these pagan Gentiles “greatly feared the LORD, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows to him.” (Jonah 1.14)
And what about the wicked citizens of Nineveh? At the beginning of the story we’re told that God is angry with them and planning their destruction because their “wickedness [had] come up before [him].” (Jonah 1.1) Before we ever directly encounter the Ninevites in the story, we assume they are the antagonists. But when Jonah shows up in Nineveh to tell them they’d wronged God, here’s what happens: “The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.” (Jonah 4.5-6)
Pagan sailors making vows to God? Wicked Ninevites fasting and humbling themselves before God? So the story of Jonah isn’t about a big fish? No it’s not. Jonah is about the reality that no one is beyond the redemptive reach of God’s love. This reality does a few things for us. First, God’s love erases the classic idea of good & bad. People and cultures and social groups simply don’t fit neatly and categorically into the good and bad boxes in light of his redemptive reach. Second, God’s love reorients our perspective in order to help us see the whole of humanity with grace. As we become more aware of this reality, we begin to see all people through the same lense. And thirdly, God’s love compels us to see ourselves properly, as beloved failures loved without condition or cause; loved only because God chooses to love.
Is your heart moved by this choice that God makes? It’s a choice God makes over and over again, day by day, from sun up to sun down, every moment. If and when our hearts are moved by the reality of God’s choice to love, we will inevitably find ourselves inching closer to a more generous view of grace. The more we recognize our own depravity and undeserving nature, the more the rest of the world… the outsiders, the marginalized, the unacceptable… will begin to look just like us.
At the center of your being, as a human being, are you more loved by God than the negligent father? Are you more loved than the abusive mother? How about the drug addict on the corner, or the inconsiderate neighbor, or the panhandler, or the annoying classmate, or the manipulative boss, or the arrogant teacher? Does God love you more? The answer is no. But it isn’t no because God is selective and delights in playing favorites. The answer is no because God maximizes his ability to love each and every individual in human history. He chooses to love everybody with nothing less than everything he has. When he sent his Son to die on a cross for all of us, he did so knowing that not all would receive the gift, but hoping we would.
The massive heart of God is able to love even those that none of us want to love. This is the central truth Jonah has to teach us. My hope is that we’d live into this reality by enjoying the freedom it brings and seeing the whole of humanity as being well within God’s amazing redemptive reach.