Posted in Christianity, Love

More than a Fish Story: An Old Testament Lesson in Grace

not just another fish story

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.

God uses the vine to teach Jonah grace

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.

Posted in Christianity, Faith

Reliable Mercy

Mustard seed faith

I have never been a parent, unless you want to count my cat.  He is a true tomcat who prefers to watch you from a good five-foot distance.  He does not want my bids for affection unless they involve some fish-flavored kibble or tuna flakes.  Despite the claw and tooth scars I have to prove his need for independence, I continue to try to figure out ways to cuddle him and still respect his “space.”  He has trained me to turn the tub faucet on at his command.  I have learned to “punish” him with unwanted hugs even when I might want to knock him across the room instead.

If I, being human, can go through all of this for a furry “child,” how much more must my parents feel for me, how much more any parent must feel for his/her child, no matter how rebellious that child sometimes becomes.  Even when a child goes against what his parents want him to do, I can understand how much the parent must long for the child to return to the roots of his raising again, or themselves struggle with trying to understand the world from their child’s perspective to find a place of restorative peace.

This Sunday, we are geared up to celebrate the most merciful “parent” of all time–our living God!  His mercy is always present, always available, and always ours alone to lose because He has given us the free will to choose the gift of His grace which was His sacrifice on the Cross to bring us back into relationship with Him.

You will read a lot of Scripture from the New Testament this week if you are studying about Easter, but I want you to consider a passage from the Old Testament instead: the story of Jonah.  When the reluctant prophet decides to do the job he didn’t want to take from God, the LORD doesn’t immediately destroy the people who don’t want to listen to Jonah’s message from God.

So, Jonah does what any of us humans would do at times like this.  He pouts.  He goes and sits at a distance from the town of Nineveh and waits for God to drop down the punishment God made Jonah go talk about.  Instead of destroying the city, however, God has a plant grow over Jonah, offering the pouting prophet shade from the unrelenting sun.  However, almost as quickly as it grew, the plant gets infected by a worm, withers and dies, leaving Jonah exposed to the elements again and ready to himself die:

 Then God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry because the plant died?”

“Yes,” Jonah retorted, “even angry enough to die!”

Then the Lord said, “You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. It came quickly and died quickly. But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?” (Jonah 4:9-11)

You might be tempted to read the Old Testament and think that God is a judgmental, even brutal, Creator.  But, the Old Testament is as full of His merciful attitude as the New.  Think about all the times that the people God talks to often argue with Him.  There is more than one instance when a prophet will repetitively ask God, will you save the city if you can find 50 good people? 40 people? 20 people? 10?  God patiently agrees each time.  He tolerates a created thing that deigns to argue with its Creator!  He wants to save not only the people of Nineveh, but the animals as well.

Don’t be surprised, then, when you discover that the God whose shoulders are big enough to take every complaint you have to hurl in His direction still loves you enough to die for you.  He wants a relationship with YOU.  And He is patient about waiting for you.

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)

I can’t rely on my cat for anything except his desire to be fed on a regular basis.  Even my husband of twenty years sometimes gets angry with me.  But God is the only ONE in my life who is reliably merciful.  Read His word from beginning to end, forwards and backwards, and what you will discover is a God just waiting to show His love for you.

As you celebrate the risen Christ this Easter, don’t forget to celebrate His reliable mercy as well.  He is waiting and much more ready to show you love than the anger we all deserve.

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)

Posted in Christian Living

Get a Life: Get Your God Perspective

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How many times have you ended a day thinking, boy, am I lucky God didn’t give me what I deserved to get today? 

How many more times do we go through a day thinking, when is God going to give so and so what he/she deserves?

The key to a full, happy, fulfilling life isn’t a 60-inch television and a Mercedes in your driveway.  Ask a Syrian Christian who has watched his baby slaughtered for refusing to deny Christ (if internet reports are indeed correct), or a single mom working three jobs to put not even enough food on the table, and they’ll tell you truthfully the value of material things.

The key to a full, happy, fulfilling life isn’t making sure that everyone around you is following the rules you’ve been taught or that you’ve decided were the right ones along the way.  Just like commercials can lead us to pick up a package of cereal at the grocery store, we can too easily be led to believe that purple is red and right and wrong have middle ground in this capital-driven culture where we are bombarded with information always.  Information distractions make it easy to point the finger at others’ wrong-doing, while we give ourselves a pass.

The key to a full, happy, fulfilling life IS knowing the word of God and concentrating on standing in the truth of that word, regardless of what the rest of the world is doing.  When we stand in that truth, we know that we don’t deserve anything, especially not the love that God showed by offering His Son as a sacrifice for our sin.  The knowledge of our own guilt should make us treat others more kindly, as fellow children of God.  We all have sins we would rather hide.  We all are known by God.

A God perspective not only sees through the eyes of love, it knows that God is infinitely patient and desires to have all of us in His Kingdom through our acceptance of Christ as our Savior.  A God perspective doesn’t look for the faults in others, but encourages the good in all of us.  It looks for ways to be the hands and feet of Christ.  It even sees how television and social media might just be equated with Baal worship and Asherah poles if we are not careful.

We can never be too careful.  The Jews of the Old Testament thought they were careful.  But over and over again, they failed to follow all of God’s instructions, and inevitably, they paid for their failure to maintain the singularity of God as God.  Eventually, they even lost the temple where He had dwelled among them.

But God’s patience is persistent.  If you read the history chapters of the Old Testament, you see time and time again that God gives people generations to straighten themselves out, but when He hands down a sentence, it is eventually carried out.  The wrath of God that is so vividly depicted in the Old Testament may make modern readers cringe and give those who are looking a handy excuse to forget about trying to apply God’s edicts to their lives, but they do so to their own detriment.

Fortunately for us, we have a Saviour who was willing to take the wrath we deserve upon Himself.  Because God’s perspective sees us through the loving eyes of Jesus, we don’t get what we really deserve.  We get life eternal with the One and Only God.

See the world through that perspective, and nothing will stop you.  Walk in God’s truth and know the kind of peace that surpasses understanding.  It is a life-long journey to completion, but we are not alone.  Keep listening for the Holy Spirit every day.  Keep praying to be guided by the Word of God.  And be patient.

This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:3-4)

Posted in Christianity, Faith

HIS mercies are always new

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You wouldn’t know it just looking at this photo, but this young tree in my backyard represents a sort of miracle.

When we had one of the bad hurricanes blow through a few years back, a full-grown version of this tree covered my back patio, bearing a fruit that I couldn’t identify, but that the guys who did my yard liked to pick and eat, so I know it was edible.

The mighty winds of the storm up-rooted my beautiful tree, so I had the guys cut it down, letting them leave the trunk in place to save everybody a lot of hassle.

Imagine my surprise when I looked out my window one day to see what looked like a tiny weed coming up by that trunk. Before long, the weed started looking more and more like my old tree. Some day, I believe the yard guys will have fruit to snack on again.

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I am no credit to my ancestors. I have actually killed bamboo! So, when I looked out this cold winter at the bare branches of another tree in my backyard, I figured the cold had finally killed it.

But, Spring has come and with it, the leaves and beautiful flowers I love to see as I do dishes. It happened without my even noticing, this renewal. One day, the branches were bare. This morning, I was blessed to notice the tree had bloomed again.

Our relationship with the Maker of all things is like that. Every day, whether we realize it or not, He is ready to let us begin anew. He is working His Spirit in us to make us bloom.

The love of Christ is new for us every day. No matter how badly we mess up, He is ready to forgive. We can begin clean again.

And produce the fruit that feeds forever.

In Christ,
Ramona