GLIMPSES OF GRACE IN OBSCURE PLACES…JONAH
February 9, 2020
What is grace? A retro-sounding girl’s name? The pious words we recite before we dig into the meatloaf and mashed potatoes?
How about this: “Grace is the unmerited dispensation of God’s benevolence toward his created beings.” That’s how Dr. Jim Logan, my professor of systematic theology in seminary, defined grace. Kinda deep.
I like this much better: “Grace is a gift which we do not deserve but God gives to us anyway because God loves us—with no strings attached.”
And this gift of grace is found in some very obscure places. Good grace. Amazing grace. Grace that pops up all over the place, like in the back corners of the Old Testament—that part of the Bible preachers are fond of referring to as a testament of God’s judgment. We see God’s grace quite evident there, if we don’t get sidetracked by fixating on other things.
I was fishing in Danny Neese’s pond one morning when I hooked an enormous fish. I reeled that largemouth bass in, and he was huge. I became fixated on recording my moment of fishing triumph to share with the world. I held the huge bass up by my grinning face, and proceeded to take a selfie with my iphone.
I never saw the selfie, though. That largemouth bass flapped his tail against my ear, startling me to the point I dropped my cellphone in the pond. That ol’ largemouth bass got the last laugh!
When it comes to the story of Jonah, I believe we can miss the grace of God when we get fixated on the fish.
Yes, we see multiple layers of such grace displayed in this short, intriguing story.
It is so much more than a fish tale. Why did the story of Jonah make it into the collection of Jewish and Christian scriptures?
Well, around 498 B.C., all is well with the world in Jerusalem. In less than 40 years after returning from captivity in Babylon, the Jewish people have rebuilt the Temple and the entire city. Religion, culture and commerce are thriving.
The reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah have unleashed prosperity and national pride. The people believe they are blessed because God is totally on their side. And guess what–the citizens of this tiny nation find their upper lips quite sunburned as they look down their noses upon their neighboring nations as inferior, Gentile swine. They have totally forgotten their mission to be the light of God’s grace to the world.
And so, the story of Jonah is told as a countermeasure to such self-centered arrogance.
That’s the big picture. The theological picture.
But I believe Jonah also has much to teach us about God’s grace on a very personal level:
GRACE BECOMES RIDDANCE – Jonah 1:1-16
I’m going to read much of the story of Jonah to you this morning as translated by Eugene Peterson in the Message:
1 1-2 One day long ago, God’s Word came to Jonah, Amittai’s son: “Up on your feet and on your way to the big city of Nineveh! Preach to them. They’re in a bad way and I can’t ignore it any longer.”
3 But Jonah got up and went the other direction to Tarshish, running away from God.
He went down to the port of Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish. He paid the fare and went on board, joining those going to Tarshish—as far away from God as he could get.
4-6 But God sent a huge storm at sea, the waves towering.
The ship was about to break into pieces. The sailors were terrified. They called out in desperation to their gods. They threw everything they were carrying overboard to lighten the ship. Meanwhile, Jonah had gone down into the hold of the ship to take a nap. He was sound asleep. The captain came to him and said, “What’s this? Sleeping! Get up! Pray to your god! Maybe your god will see we’re in trouble and rescue us.”
7 Then the sailors said to one another, “Let’s get to the bottom of this. Let’s draw straws to identify the culprit on this ship who’s responsible for this disaster.”
So they drew straws. Jonah got the short straw.
8 Then they grilled him: “Confess. Why this disaster? What is your work? Where do you come from? What country? What family?”
9 He told them, “I’m a Hebrew. I worship God, the God of heaven who made sea and land.”
10 At that, the men were frightened, really frightened, and said, “What on earth have you done!” As Jonah talked, the sailors realized that he was running away from God.
11 They said to him, “What are we going to do with you—to get rid of this storm?” By this time the sea was wild, totally out of control.
12 Jonah said, “Throw me overboard, into the sea. Then the storm will stop. It’s all my fault. I’m the cause of the storm. Get rid of me and you’ll get rid of the storm.”
13 But no. The men tried rowing back to shore. They made no headway. The storm only got worse and worse, wild and raging.
14 Then they prayed to God, “O God! Don’t let us drown because of this man’s life, and don’t blame us for his death. You are God. Do what you think is best.”
15 They took Jonah and threw him overboard. Immediately the sea was quieted down.
16 The sailors were impressed, no longer terrified by the sea, but in awe of God. They worshiped God, offered a sacrifice, and made vows.
Friends, I believe sometimes grace becomes riddance. We cannot experience God’s presence, God’s goodness, God’s salvation, God’s peace, until we have thrown someone’s bad influence overboard.
Just as Jonah’s self-centeredness and disobedience brought calamity upon this boatload of innocent sailors, so it is there are often people in our lives who end up drowning us in their sea of sinfulness and negativity. We allow ourselves to be pulled down in their undertow of depravity. And there can be no calmness, no serenity in our lives until we do something about them.
It’s not that we harm them in any way, but we must disassociate ourselves from their poisonous manipulation, we must throw their toxic influence overboard, that we might be able to clearly behold God’s grace in our lives.
Yes, in many instances, grace becomes riddance.
Jonah is tossed overboard, and the sailors breathe a great sigh of relief. They encounter grace in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and they believe.
GRACE WELCOMES REPENTANCE – Jonah 3:1-10
All seems lost for Jonah as he sinks beneath the waves. But, alas, this is where the fish comes in. God sends a humongous fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah now finds himself sloshing around inside the belly of this fish. For three days and three nights Jonah has time to do a lot of soul searching.
He cuts a plea bargain with God. He decides that if God will give him one more chance, he will go to Nineveh. Nineveh would be a huge improvement over his current situation.
Well, God gives the ol’ fish a bout of acid reflux. The big fish has a gut reaction to this sour prophet, and belches him forth. The next thing we see is a regurgitated Jonah lying face down on a Mediterranean beach. Yep, there’s nothing like being covered in fish puke that helps you to perceive God’s grace! And Jonah, a fugitive from God’s grace, receives a second chance.
3 1-2 Next, God spoke to Jonah a second time: “Up on your feet and on your way to the big city of Nineveh! Preach to them. They’re in a bad way and I can’t ignore it any longer.”
3 This time Jonah started off straight for Nineveh, obeying God’s orders to the letter.
Nineveh was a big city, very big—it took three days to walk across it.
4 Jonah entered the city, went one day’s walk and preached, “In forty days Nineveh will be obliterated.”
5 The people of Nineveh listened, and trusted God. They proclaimed a citywide fast and dressed in burlap to show their repentance. Everyone did it—rich and poor, famous and obscure, leaders and followers.
6-9 When the message reached the king of Nineveh, he got up off his throne, threw down his royal robes, dressed in burlap, and sat down in the dirt. Then he issued a public proclamation throughout Nineveh, authorized by him and his leaders: “Not one drop of water, not one bite of food for man, woman, or animal, including your herds and flocks! Dress them all, both people and animals, in burlap, and send up a cry for help to God. Everyone must turn around, turn back from an evil life and the violent ways that stain their hands. Who knows?
Maybe God will turn around and change his mind about us, quit being angry with us and let us live!”
10 God saw what they had done, that they had turned away from their evil lives. He did change his mind about them. What he said he would do to them he didn’t do.
Lately I’ve been trying to work crossword puzzles—you know, exercising my feeble mind to keep the Alzheimer’s thing away. But I find them to be extremely frustrating. Just one wrong letter can nullify an whole series of words, even the entire puzzle.
We often look at life as if it is one big crossword puzzle. And if we’ve made a huge mistake, that’s it—all is ruined. It’s over.
Well, we need to hear some good news. God welcomes repentance. God builds all highways with turning lanes. God responds to our desire to change. God allows U-turns at every intersection.
If God can change his mind about an entire Ninevite nation, he can change his mind about you and me. For God so loved the world—that includes you and me—that he gave his only Son Jesus Christ for us, that we who believe might not perish but have eternal life.
Our lives are not a closed book. We can turn around and start a new chapter. God’s grace can help us rid ourselves of deadening influences. His grace can enable us to repent, to turn around and turn toward his will and wholeness.
But what about when we refuse to acknowledge we are the problem or even have a problem? Can God deal with that?
GRACE OVERCOMES RELUCTANCE – Jonah 4:1-11
4 1-2 Jonah was furious. He lost his temper. He yelled at God, “God! I knew it—when I was back home, I knew this was going to happen! That’s why I ran off to Tarshish!
I knew you were sheer grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness!
3 “So, God, if you won’t kill them, kill me! I’m better off dead!”
4 God said, “What do you have to be angry about?”
5 But Jonah just left. He went out of the city to the east and sat down in a sulk. He put together a makeshift shelter of leafy branches and sat there in the shade to see what would happen to the city.
6 God arranged for a broad-leafed tree to spring up. It grew over Jonah to cool him off and get him out of his angry sulk. Jonah was pleased and enjoyed the shade. Life was looking up.
7-8 But then God sent a worm. By dawn of the next day, the worm had bored into the shade tree and it withered away. The sun came up and God sent a hot, blistering wind from the east. The sun beat down on Jonah’s head and he started to faint. He prayed to die: “I’m better off dead!”
9 Then God said to Jonah, “What right do you have to get angry about this shade tree?”
Jonah said, “Plenty of right. It’s made me angry enough to die!”
10-11 God said, “What’s this? How is it that you can change your feelings from pleasure to anger overnight about a mere shade tree that you did nothing to get?
You neither planted nor watered it. It grew up one night and died the next night. So, why can’t I likewise change what I feel about Nineveh from anger to pleasure, this big city of more than 120,000 childlike people who don’t yet know right from wrong, to say nothing of all the innocent animals?”
Whoa! That’s not exactly a nice, tidy Disney-esque ending to the story!
Did you notice? Everyone in the story glories in God’s grace except Jonah. The sailors gladly accept the relief of God grace. The Ninevites gladly accept the relief of grace. Even the fish gladly accepts the relief of God’s grace—no more indigestion once Jonah is expelled from his gut.
But Jonah? Nope. He’s a brat. He pouts. He whines. There is no attitude adjustment. He never quite gets what God wants him to see—that God’s grace is wide enough to embrace all people if they are willing to respond. Grace, not condemnation, is always God’s default home page. But it’s not Jonah’s home page.
Yes, we, like Jonah, enjoy singing “Amazing Grace” when it’s all about “saving a wretch” like us. But there are times when we don’t want that grace to be so amazing for others.
But, guess what? God couldn’t care less about our petulance. He’s going to continue working to get his greater purposes for our world accomplished.
And just as God managed to use Jonah in spite of Jonah’s disinclination, so God can and will use you and me in spite of our flaws. God’s grace overcomes Jonah’s reluctance…in fact, God’s grace overwhelms Jonah’s reluctance, and an entire city is saved.
Well, let’s summarize some places where we have seen God’s grace evident in this tiny book and in our own lives:
- God’s grace becomes riddance…when we shed ourselves of someone else’s sinful and negative influence so that we can finally see God active in our lives.
- God’s grace welcomes repentance…God certainly allows U-turns at every intersection of life, enabling us to turn around and turn toward his will and wholeness.
- God’s grace overcomes reluctance…God can and will get his greater purposes accomplished through us and sometimes in spite of us.
So let’s get back to the fish…It was children’s sermon time. The pastor had all the kids down to the front of the sanctuary. He was telling the story of how God called Jonah to preach to the Ninevites and Jonah tried to run away. He told of Jonah getting tossed overboard and being swallowed by the big fish and riding in the belly of it for 3 days and 3 nights. He then described in graphic detail how the fish barfed up Jonah.
He then asked the question of the kids, “What does the account of the fish vomiting up Jonah on to dry land say to us?”
And one bright little girl responded, “Well, my daddy told me it means even a fish can’t stomach a bad preacher!”
Well, there you have it!!!