Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Jonah: The Other Message

 Who's Side is God On, Anyway?

The Book of Jonah is one of the shorter books in the Old Testament and - I think - perhaps one  of the most misunderstood.  But it also contains an often-overlooked message:  one that is quite relevant for us, today, in America and in our world.   This is the message about God taking sides in human affairs - it asks the question "Who's Side is God On, Anyway?"  The book then offers an answer that surprised Jonah thousands of years ago, an answer that will continue to surprise many of us today.

The first and most widely-known message of Jonah is fairly clear - if God has a mission for you, running away from God won't do you much good.

However, there's another message in Jonah, one that doesn't come across much, but it is also one that has perhaps more relevance to our lives today than the first message.

In a nutshell, God directed His prophet Jonah to go to Israel's hated enemy, Nineveh (capital of Assyria) and preach a message of doom. Though not Jonah's intention, this was a message that invited - or at least allowed - the Ninevites to repent.

Right up front, Jonah doesn't want to go to Nineveh, and he rejects God's command for two very modern reasons.  First, he feared that he'd no sooner show his face in Nineveh than he'd be stoned to death (if he was lucky). These Assyrians were, after all, the sworn enemies of Israel.  The second reason, not quite so immediately obvious, was that because Assyria was Israel's sworn (and much larger) enemy, Jonah really, really didn't want to risk actually helping them. While he was God's servant, he was not a traitor to his native Israel.

So in disobedience, he ran from God, heading to the port city of Tarshish.  There he hopped on a boat, hoping to sail away from God's commands.  Didn't work.  Jonah apparently forgot that God is omnipresent, as well as all powerful.  So God sent a terrible storm, and it wasn't long before the other crew members figured out that somebody's God had been angered. Through a process of elimination, they determined that it was Jonah.  So, after trying in vain to sail back to shore, Jonah realized he wasn't going to have these men's souls on his conscience.

At his own prophetic recommendation, the crew made Jonah walk the plank, doing so to appease his wrathful God.

That worked for the sailors, and - oddly - it worked for Jonah, too.  He was swallowed by a "huge fish" (not a whale, which is one of the first common errors people have in understanding Jonah).  Remember, this isn't the fairytale story of Pinocchio, but a record of God's great works.

After three days in the belly of the beast, God made sure that Jonah was vomited up on the shore by this great fish. But only after Jonah had repented of his folly in trying to run away from God.

That's the beginning of Jonah's story, and that's the message most people take from the book.  "You can't run away from God - if He has a job for you, buckle down and do it, no matter how scary it might be, no matter how much it runs against the grain."

Others, looking more deeply, compare Jonah's three days in the belly of the beast with Christ's three days in the world of death before being restored to life.   In that they are right - the Old Testament is filled with prophecies about the coming Savior, and this is certainly one of those - but that's not the message for us today.

There's another message that is, I believe, far more relevant to us today than running from God and his commands (though that message also obviously has an eternal value and relevance).

As the story goes on, Jonah goes to Nineveh, preaches the Lord's wrath, including a prophecy of total destruction in just 40 days. Then - surprising Jonah and perhaps even themselves - the people of Nineveh hear the word of God from Jonah.  This included everyone, from the lowliest beggar to the King himself.  All begin fasting, wearing sack-cloth and anointing themselves with ashes, the contemporary Near Eastern symbols of repentance.  God, pleased with their response, decides to cancel His plans to smite Nineveh.

At first, Jonah doesn't know this.

Instead, having followed God's command to the letter, Jonah went out and found himself a ringside seat for the upcoming smiting, holing up in a patch of desert overlooking the city.  In modern terms, he had his bucket of wings, his cold six-pack, his remote - and he was ready to watch the Cosmic Super Bowl, God's wrathful smiting of the greatest city of the age.

But despite all of his expectations and hopes - that Israel's great enemy and nemesis, Nineveh, capital of Assyria, would be destroyed by God's wrath - that didn't happen.

And when it didn't happen, Jonah got mad.  Mad at God.

His thinking went something like this.

"Hey, God, we are Your Chosen People, the faithful sons of Abraham and Jacob, of Joseph and Moses, of Joshua and David.  You're on our side. You're our protector.  And Nineveh, capital of Assyria is our sworn enemy. It deserves smiting - you said so yourself.  And let's not forget that Assyria is a lot bigger and stronger than we are in Israel.  So why didn't You do Your warrior-God thing, just the way You promised, and destroy our enemies. 

"As You yourself had me preach, the Ninevites have certainly earned destruction."

Jonah was mad that His God hadn't stood by His Chosen People's country, ticked off that the God of Abraham hadn't defended His People.  Instead, God had shown mercy - he actually spared Jonah's hated enemy. In doing so, he left them intact and able to attack and destroy Israel, pretty much whenever they pleased.

Besides, Jonah had 50-yard-line seats for the smiting.

 He even told God of his feelings:

"Isn't this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home?  That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish.  I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity."

God tried to teach Jonah an object lesson about compassion and forgiveness, but finally, in the face of this hard-hearted Hebrew, God realized that He was just going to have to lay down the law.

"Should not I have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons ...?"

That's where the Book of Jonah ends, with God scolding and admonishing Jonah. However, Jonah was showing no sign of understanding God's lesson.  True, God gets the last word, and while that last word is in the form of a question, it's a rhetorical question.

In that question comes perhaps the most important message for us - Americans and Christians - living in our world today.

Jonah expected God - his God, Israel's God, the God who'd made the Israelites His Chosen People - to fight on His People's behalf.  Jonah expected his God to make Israel's enemies His own enemies.

That was Jonah's expectation.  And in many ways, that remains our expectation today.

Consider this.

In World War II, President Roosevelt ended his speech to Congress asking that they declare war on our enemy with the words, "So Help Us God!"  And if you listen to a recording, you'll hear that this is not a throw-away platitude (like one of our more secular Presidents ending each speech with "and God Bless America"). Instead, Roosevelt delivered the thundering proclamation of an Old Testament Prophet or Patriarch, invoking God's Own Help, doing so with every expectation that God would get on board, making our enemies His enemies.

Yet also during World War II, emblazoned on the belt-buckle of each soldier serving Hitler and Nazi Germany, was the phrase, "Gott Mit Uns" (God With Us).

That's right.  Hitler's Nazis, as a matter of State policy, publicly professed a belief that God was on their side.  Which meant He couldn't be on our side.

In World War II, on whose side was God, anyway?

More recently, the radical Islamic al Qaeda and Hamas and Hezbollah and ISIS terrorists have all professed to doing the Holy Work of Allah.  Their God, Allah, presented to the world by his final prophet, Mohammad, is thought by some to be the same monotheistic God who'd first raised up Abraham, the father of Ishmael - founder of the Arab nation which became the first Muslims.  Their Allah is supposed to be the same God as the Israelites' Yahweh, the One True God who sent his Holy Prophets to the Israelites, including Jesus.

I don't believe that Allah is God, if only because of John 14:

 I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me

But the followers of Mohammad believe that their Allah is the final revelation of the Jewish and Christian God.  So, when these radical Muslims suicide-bomb an Israeli pizza parlor or crash hijacked airliners into the Twin Trade Towers and the Pentagon, are they doing God's Will?

Is He really on their side?

No, God is on no man's side - not even (if our God was also Allah) his prophet's side. Instead, this is the lesson from Jonah:

God expects each of us to be on His side.

This is the lesson of Jonah that applies today.  God made it clear to His own prophet, Jonah, that He (God) was not on Jonah's side - nor was he on his own Chosen People's side.

Instead, He expected His Chosen People - from the run-away prophet to the lowliest shepherd boy with a slingshot - to be on His side. On God's side.

God is infinite and eternal - he doesn't take sides in human endeavors unless doing so suits His purposes. He'll do it for his own reasons, but never for "our" purposes.  He has a single, unchanging side. He demands that we repent of our sins, even if we are among his Chosen People or among those Saved by Christ's blood.  But then He is gracious to offer His forgiveness to all who sincerely repent and call on God for His forgiveness.

Just as the Ninevites did, to Jonah's apparently eternal frustration.

God was not on Jonah's side, or His Chosen People's side, or a Christian's side, or a Muslim's side. God isn't even on America's side.  Instead, He expects us to be on His side.

And that is the real lesson of Jonah.

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