On Memorial Day, we remember with a measure of sadness and a whole lot of pride those brave men and women who have given their very greatest gift for the sake of defending our freedom and way of life.
It seems like an appropriate time to remember the person who paved the way for such magnificent sacrifice, our Lord Jesus, who, having lived a human life and managed what none of us will ever do, that is to be without sin, sacrificed Himself so that we might have eternal life through His grace.
Most people want to place grace solidly in the New Testament. Some like to see God as a sort of split personality—the wrathful, war-like Judge of the Old Testament versus the loving, saving Lamb of the New. But God is the same yesterday, today and forever, so it isn’t really any surprise to find examples of His grace throughout the story of our relationship with the Eternal.
Take the narrative of the reluctant prophet Jonah. If you haven’t read his story since you were a child and more prone to concentrate on the concept of a man inside a fish, take a bit of time today with me to look at this Biblical episode, which is so about grace.
As I read Jonah’s story during my Bible study this week, I was impressed anew by its parallels to some of the events in Jesus’ life, and I was struck by its overpowering message of God’s grace. In fact, I found that some of Jonah’s goofiest reactions to God’s calling for him only go to underscore the truth of God’s mercy.
Jonah arrives on the Biblical scene at a time when the Jews could be doing better. They are a divided kingdom, running through a succession of kings who take turns being for God, ambivalent, or outright disobedient. Sometimes they worship as they ought. Other times, they cling to pagan idols.
But Jonah isn’t sent to prophesy to the Jews! Instead, God wants Jonah to warn the Assyrians in the metropolitan city of Nineveh to repent before He executes a mighty punishment on them. There may be more immediate reasons that God places Jonah on this path, but there is also an inkling here of God’s future message of grace. He wants all to be saved: Jews, God-fearers, Gentiles, even enemies of His chosen people like the Assyrians. And, as we shall see, this story also shows how often the Gentiles turn more quickly to God’s message of grace than His chosen people.
When called, like so many of us, Jonah doesn’t want to go. So, forgetting that God is everywhere, Jonah hops a ship and tries the impossible feat of outrunning Him. Jonah doesn’t get far. A storm begins to rage on the open waters. The sailors of the vessel, terrified, are surprised to find Jonah fast asleep as the storm rages.
Even though Jesus was not running from God, you might recall He, too, was found fast asleep during a stormy voyage on the open water. When His disciples wake Him, He calmly abates the storm. Jonah’s path to bringing about calm waters is clumsy by comparison.
The sailors cast lots to figure out who is responsible and then start questioning Jonah. He admits it is his fault that the storm has come and offers to sacrifice himself for their safety by being thrown overboard into the sea. (Jonah doesn’t know that God will save him, so he really is offering to die to save the men in the boat.) The sailors, reluctant to kill a man, even though he has brought this calamity on them in the first place, attempt to ride out the storm. Eventually, even they have to admit defeat and throw Jonah overboard.
Jonah stays inside the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights (another parallel to Christ, who was three days and three nights in the tomb before rising again). While sitting in the gooey, smelly darkness, Jonah prays, and what he prays about is grace and the salvation that comes because of it:
Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the LORD.
If Jonah’s story isn’t already weird enough, it takes another strange twist once he has successfully fulfilled his mission. For, having prophesied doom so that the Assyrians actually repent of their evil ways, Jonah gets angry that God chooses to show compassion instead of reigning destruction on the great city:
That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish, Jonah complains. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.
Showing how challenging the concept of grace can be for humans to grasp, Jonah accepts God’s compassion on an intellectual level but is so irritated that his prophesying was unnecessary since God did not condemn Nineveh that Jonah proclaims he is angry enough to die.
Jonah finds a place east of the city (won’t Christ come from the east upon His return?) and plops down to do just that. But, God isn’t finished teaching him lessons, or us, just yet. God makes a vine grow over Jonah that protects him from the elements. The next day, God allows the vine to be gnawed away by a worm, exposing Jonah to a scorching wind and blazing sun.
Now Jonah is really angry, but God gives Jonah a more merciful perspective to consider, one that takes into account the true meaning of the vine that Jesus later proclaims:
But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”
Our God loves us. Even when we are most despicable, He longs for us to turn towards Him. He forgives yesterday, today and forever. He saves yesterday, today and forever.
During this Memorial Day holiday, as we pay honor to those who have given their lives in fighting for our country, we should begin by honoring the One whose sacrifice gave tangible proof of God’s saving grace. Because of Jesus, we creations of the mighty God know every moment of every day through all circumstances that God’s grace never fails.
Only God could tell us so much from the story of a reluctant prophet in the belly of a whale.