BT recently led a small ‘Chapel’ service where he talked about Jonah and it struck me again how much I am like Jonah, but also, considering my recent blogs, how Jonah is exemplary of the consumer church mentality.
Let me first paraphrase what BT said (as parsed through my own brain) as it’s well worth consideration. First he ran through the story and pointed out that though the beginning was a great story, it’s not the important bit. In fact this whole blog entry comes from the fact that BT shone his spotlight on the last chapter of the book, it was this chapter that held the important message not the fun story of the fish. I think that’s also true for Daniel (lion’s den versus prophecy) and is a pitfall we need to be wary of with any story we teach in Junior Church. It’s easy to remember the story from our youth and not reevaluate it as adults.
His main point was that Jonah didn’t want the people of Nineveh to be saved and ultimately he is bitter that God chooses to be merciful. BT then challenged those assembled to consider if there are people we don’t reach out to because we don’t want them to be saved, or don’t think they could or should be. Now originally I didn’t think this applied to me as I can’t think of anyone I dislike that much (geez, I’m holy), but his message has continued to challenge me and, I realise, I didn’t get it. It’s not so much that I don’t want people to be saved, but that there are people that I don’t try to save because I don’t like them (so never bother to talk to them) or don’t think would be interested (so don’t try) and in fact there are obviously people I don’t want saved, anyone I don’t tell about Jesus! I can say I want to see people in my community saved, but if I don’t actually go out and try to spread the Gospel then, well, my actions speak louder than words.
I guess ‘to Tarshish!’ could be the clarion call for many of us when called to share the Gospel. Haven’t we all found excuses not to tell people about Jesus? Mainly from being shy or worried they would mock us. BT pointed out in his talk that Jonah, in telling the sailors to throw him overboard, was basically saying ‘I’d rather die than go to Nineveh!’. Throwing himself to death into a stormy sea seems a little extreme… until you ask me to go door-knocking with pamphlets and then ‘To Tarshish!’ you’ll here me cry.
But Jonah wasn’t shy and socially awkward so why was he so desperate to escape his calling? For that we need a quick history lesson (I heard that groan) and it might shed a slightly more sympathetic light on Jonah. You see Nineveh was an Assyrian city (and a more likely owner of the famed Hanging Gardens) and the Assyrians were a great (and brutal) power that invaded and controlled a lot of the region. Jonah would not have been a great fan of the Assyrians and would have been happy to hear that Nineveh was going to be destroyed.
Think of it this way: I’m not a huge fan of Donald Trump (as President) and if I heard he was going to be impeached I’d be pretty happy (as I think someone with political experience would be better in the role). If God then commanded me to go to Washington and explain a few things to Mr. Trump in order to stop that impeachment, well, I’d have a hard time. Especially if I knew that he would most likely continue with his policies such as dismantling universal healthcare and travel bans.
The issue is that Jonah was still working on his own agenda. It’s an extreme example, but perhaps a lesson to us about just how far we have to go in submission to God’s plans for ourselves and the World. It strikes me while writing that the story of Jonah is an embodiment of the command to love our enemies. A tale to show us what that looks like (or what it doesn’t look like) and how difficult that command can be. Also that there is no one who is exempt from that commandment, no one who is too much of an enemy.
After Jonah has done his duty and preached to Nineveh he goes and sits down in a little shelter to watch it burn. Which doesn’t happen. And he’s cross. He then complains to God that He’s too nice. “See?” he says. “I knew you’d save them, that’s why I didn’t want to go.” And again it’s an extreme example, but is it, at it’s core, any different from us deciding what or how something should be done and balking at the idea that God wants it differently?
Let’s take it to an extreme the other way. The church leadership decide that the church service needs to be re-jigged. Then there are cries (at least there used to be from some of the older generations) that ‘we’ve always done it this way’ as if the layout of the church or the service is somehow an integral, dare I say holy, part of being church. Yes we might attract new members, win new converts to Christ, but not if it means leaving my comfort zone.
While Jonah waits for Nineveh’s destruction God causes a plant to grow up and shade him and then sends a worm to eat it. Jonah is happy and then back to his default angry. God challenges him on it, pointing out that Jonah did nothing to make the plant grow nor tend it. God then points out that Jonah had great concern over the plant (which had nothing to do with him) so shouldn’t God have concern over a huge city?
In both cases Jonah felt he had a right to be angry, he felt he had a say, but in both cases it had nothing to do with him. He didn’t make the plant appear and he didn’t have a say in it’s death; in the same way he had no say over the destruction of Nineveh. He just thought he should have a say when God merely called Him to do God’s work, speak on behalf of Him.
Does that sound familiar?
Have you ever wished God’s destruction on a city? Do we get overly concerned, even angry, about how we do church or what, and how, others are doing? Jonah was so concerned with what he wanted, what he thought was right, that he ignored not only God’s wishes, but also His sovereignty. I don’t know if that’s you (probably not, you seem pretty awesome), but it’s definitely me. Even when I am doing Kingdom work I can do what I think the people need, or worse, what I think God wants rather than letting Him lead. And of course then there’s all those times that, at best, I haven’t considered God or His plan in my decisions and, at worst, deliberately done whatever I’ve wanted knowing it’s wrong. I guess that’s kind of taking a ship to Tarshish, isn’t it? Perhaps we don’t do it deliberately, but we’ve still been going in the opposite direction to the one God wants.
We talk about giving our life to Christ, but it’s not easy is it? If you’re anything like me then you assumed that having become a Christian you were supposed to carry on with normal life, going to school/work etc etc, but you were supposed to be a good witness while you are there. And we do, don’t we? Society is such that we can’t really escape it. We can’t wander around preaching like Paul or Isaiah, we just hope that God gives us some Kingdom work to within the structure of the lives we have chosen.
And that’s not wrong, but maybe we need to expect more from God and His plan. Again, I assumed God’s plan for my life was something about getting a job I enjoyed and falling in love; it was always couched within the societal norm.
So what do we do? I hardest of hard things: try and let go. It’s like that trust exercise where you fall back and trust the person to catch you. What if God doesn’t catch us? What if it all goes wrong? But God is big enough and close enough to catch us.
So maybe it’s time for a prayer. A prayer to check our course, are we going the right way? Are we heading to Nineveh or Tarshish?
I’ll finish with what I’ve learned looking at Jonah again. I think the real lesson is that it doesn’t matter what we think or want. Life is like the plant that grows up to shade him. We get it for free and it’s good and we have no right to think we have any control over it. We have no right to complain when it isn’t as we want it. Life is God’s not ours. And you know what? Life isn’t important, it isn’t the focus. Life with God in eternity is.
A final analogy: Eternity with God is Mount Everest and life on Earth is base camp. However exciting, fun, beautiful base camp is, however nice the people are, whatever the challenges and rewards of it, it’s not the point of the expedition. The point of base camp is to prepare people to reach the summit…