9.30.2014

Jonah: It's about More than a Fish


What is the story of Jonah about?

Ask that in a Sunday school or church setting and the automatic answer is "A guy who ran away from God and got swallowed by a whale big fish." Because we church-goers know the difference between an whale and a big fish. [insert smug-face emoji here]

Seriously. The whole story of Jonah is about a guy who got swallowed by a fish? Really? That's all we get out of the story?

Do you know how much of the story is devoted to the fish? Three verses. Yes, three. Count them:
17 Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. 1 From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.
10 And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land. (Jonah 1:17; 2:1 & 10)
The same number of verses mention the "leafy plant" God gave Jonah for shade. So should we say that Jonah is about a guy who needed a break from the sun?

The story of Jonah is not about a storm, a fish, a plant, or a worm. It's not about pagan sailors or wicked Assyrians or a runaway prophet. The story of Jonah is a story about God. God is the main character. God is the plot. God is the twist. God is the climax. God is the resolution. God is the moral. Creation - both human and not human - is the supporting cast.

The story of Jonah is contained in 4 chapters totaling 48 verses. By my own count, God is mentioned approximately 58 times (God, the LORD, you, He, I, etc.). Fifty-eight times in 48 verses!

This is a story about God.

But what do we learn about God? I would say that we don't learn anything about Him that we haven't already learned. In fact the story of Jonah is only reaffirming in narrative form what God has already told the nation of Israel all the way back in Exodus:
And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7)
God's own explanation of his character here in Exodus raises certain questions: What does that look like in real life? What if we were to take that to the extreme?  Is there anyone God can't/won't forgive? Is his mercy and compassion limited to the children of Israel or does it apply to everyone?

In the story of Jonah we see God forgiving the sinful pagan sailors, the rebellious prophet Jonah, and the wicked citizens of Nineveh.

Who does God love? Who can God forgive? To whom is God faithful? To whom does God show his grace?

We all know the answer to those questions: "Everyone!" But Jonah knew the answer, too. It's one thing to know the answer. It's another thing to actually see the answer played out.

The ISIS soldier or the Samaritan's Purse missionary - who does God love?
The raped woman or the rapist - who does God love?
The bullied or the bully - who does God love?
The one killed or the one who murdered - who does God love?
The preacher or the militant atheist - who does God love?
The nun or the lesbian - who does God love?
Israel or Assyria - who does God love?
Jonah or the pagan sailors - who does God love?

We are more like Jonah than we like to admit. He was a prophet of God. He knew God. He spoke for God. He was God's servant. But then God called him to do the impossible, the unthinkable, the inconceivable! Jonah was called to take the word of the Lord to the archenemy of Israel.

It's one thing to minister to the victims. It's another thing to minister to the perpetrators. It's one thing to comfort the abused. It's another thing to comfort the abuser. It's one thing to instill value in the kid who is bullied. It's another thing to instill value in the bully.

It's one thing to "love your neighbor and hate you enemy." It's another thing to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."

Jonah is the only biblical story I know of that ends with a question. It's a rhetorical question, but one that calls the readers to action. It calls us to a change of heart, a change of understanding. It's a question that urges us to see the world as God sees it. And if God should not be concerned about the wicked people of Nineveh, if God should not forgive the murderer, if God should not extend mercy to the rapist, if God should not show compassion toward to guilty sinner - then why should I expect him to do those things...with me?

The story of Jonah is about more than a big fish. It's about a big God with a big love.

9.02.2014

Nice to Meet You, Finally

Have you ever "met" anyone online or over the phone? Online dating is HUGE right now. There are the familiar sites like Match.com or eHarmony, but new dating sites keep popping up all the time. ChristianMingle targets single Christians across the country. OurTime is geared toward those over 50. All told nearly 40% of single American adults have used an online dating service at one point or another. Of those on dating sites, around 66% have gone on an actual date with someone they met online. The result? About 1 in 4 have met a spouse or long-term partner through online dating. (source: http://www.pewinternet.org/2013/10/21/online-dating-relationships/)
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That just blows me away. I am thankful that I have never been a "single American adult." My wife and I were high school sweethearts. But I do know how awkward it can be to meet someone in person for the first time after having "met" them online or on the phone. But why does it cause anxiety? Why is it awkward? You've talked to the person. You've exchanged thoughts, ideas, memories, and even pictures with the person. So what's the big deal?

The problem is that we can be completely different in person than we are at a distance. There is only so much of ourselves we can convey through phone conversations, email, etc. Our verbal communication is only a small part of our whole communication process. Our appearance, our body language, our non-verbal cues reveal as much as, or more than, the words we say.

Or think of this. Have you ever been listening to the DJ on the radio and formed a mental image of what you think that person looks like? I formulate in my head a face to match the voice. And most of the time I am completely wrong. The DJ on the radio looks nothing like what I think they should look like.

Or what about a singer you hear on the radio? I was watching I Love the 80s on VH1 some time ago, and they were talking about the 80s hit "Never Gonna Give You Up" by Rick Astley. His singing voice is deep and powerful. People had a certain image in their minds when they first heard the song. Then he released a music video, and to everyone's surprise Rick Astley was a thin, scrawny, young, red-head.
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The point is you can't fully know someone until you meet them in person.

The same is true for God.

In the Old Testament God spoke to Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Elijah and many others. He spoke through the prophets, he spoke through a burning bush, he spoke in whispers, he even spoke through a donkey. Our God is a God who speaks. His first creative act was speaking light into existence. He has even given us glimpses into his character in nature.

But humanity never could fully know him until he revealed himself to them in person.

This is what the writer of Hebrews says right from the beginning:
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. (Hebrews 1:1-3)
Some have said, and I tend to agree, that the Old Testament is an argument about God - Who is he? What is he like? What is his character and nature? What does he expect of us? What makes him angry? How does he act in history?

They couldn't know all the answers about God's character any more than we can know a person we've only spoken to on Facebook. The had not fully experienced the presence and person of God, so they had to go on the things they did know.

And then God "moved into the neighborhood" (John 1:14, MSG). God introduced himself in person through Jesus. No more long-distance relationships. No more one-sided phone conversations. He came in the flesh to put all arguments to rest.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3)
John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, is making it very clear. God became flesh and blood. He could be touched, embraced, hugged, and hit. He ate, he drank, he partied, he cried. He was full of compassion and righteous anger. He could be embracing children one minute and flipping over tables the next. He was human to the most human extent.

There were those who were still looking at the old Scriptures to tell Jesus what God is like! But Jesus settles the argument. You want to know what God is like? Look to Jesus.

I believe Jesus' ministry reached a climax on a mountain top in northern Israel. He took Peter, James, and John with him up the mountain. Then Moses and Elijah appear. This is like the Justice League for these young Jewish men. Moses represents the Law. Elijah represents the prophets. Peter, the loudmouth, speaks up and suggests building "tabernacles" for the three of them. He wants to honor Jesus right along with Elijah and Moses. Peter is probably thinking this would be a big honor for Jesus. He couldn't be more wrong.
Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus. (Mark 9:7-8)
God in this moment is definitively putting an end to the questions. You want to know God? Listen to Jesus. He's not saying Moses and Elijah don't have their benefits. But they could only give a partial revelation of God because God could only partially reveal himself to them in verbal form. Now, in Jesus, we see the whole of God's nature and character.

Jesus himself made a similar claim:
You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:39-40)
We believe in Scripture. We believe in the Bible. We believe that it is the word of God written for us so that we may know something about God. But we are not saved by a book. Scripture does not save us. Our word did not remain ink on a page. Our word took on flesh and blood.

You want to know God? Look to Jesus. You want to know what God is like, how he thinks, what he desires, and what detests him? Listen to Jesus.

8.29.2014

Cultural Prophets

The weather recently has been about as predictable as a 13 year old boy the last couple of days. Sunny for a while, then the clouds roll in, rain, thunder, lightning, chaos, panic, wet dogs, followed by sun and humidity the rest of the day.

The other morning I found myself looking up at the sky through our kitchen window as the clouds thickened, wondering if it would rain soon. It looked kinda clear (partly sunny/mostly cloudy - what's the flippin' difference!), but the weatherman said there would be a chance of rain. I wasn't buying that prediction. Then I realized: my kitchen window faces East.

Muttering Christian-approved curses for the sleep deprivation that comes from being a parent of two young boys, I turned and went across to the living room window which faces West. Sure enough, the sky had a gradient from depressing to ominous. All I had to do was look West and see the storm approaching.

One of my favorite genres to read is dystopian future type novels. There have been A LOT of very popular books along this line in recent years, especially those marketed toward teenagers and young adults. YA Fiction racks are packed with stories taking place in dystopian futures - societies full of corruption, evil, ignorance, etc. Yet while I enjoy The Hunger Games, Divergent, and the like, I think they are missing the mark.

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Every author (it seems) in this particular genre is trying at some level to be prophetic. They pick up on key trends in culture and amplify them to their most outrageous manifestation. The authors attempt to give us a glimpse at what society could become if left unchecked. These authors are looking West at the approaching storm while society looks East at the clear blue sky. And their target audience - namely teenagers - are those in best position to make the changes for the coming generations to avoid those storms. However, teenagers seem to be the least likely group to actually "get it."

One of my favorite books growing up was (and still is) Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. It's a story about a man named Guy who is living in a future society where books have become illegal. No one reads books anymore, and those who do and are caught with books will have their houses burned down - and the books along with them. In the story we get a brief glimpse of Guy's wife and her friends who do nothing but sit around watching the gigantic television screens as big as walls. They gossip, they chat, and they are extremely shallow/juvenile in their thinking.

We read this book as part of my junior English class in high school. As we were discussing these women, some of the girls pointed out how absurd and annoying they were. They couldn't understand why these characters had nothing better to do nor why they didn't realize what was going on in the world around them. I just sat toward the back thinking to myself: Don't you get it? YOU are these women.

The point of the story was lost on those who needed to hear it most.

For those of you who have read the classics like Orwell's 1984, Huxley's Brave New World, or Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, it's eerie to see how closely their predictions have come to fruition. Even outside to realm of fiction there are authors like Neil Postman whose works Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly are even more true and accurate today than they were 20 or 30 years ago when he wrote them.

So if these prolific cultural prophets of the early-to-mid 20th century were correct in their forecasts, what kind of society might be become if Suzanne Collins, Veronica Roth, Lois Lowry, and others are to be taken seriously? Are we facing East while a storm of violence, apathy, ignorance, and governmental oppression looms ominously in the West?

And do Christians even have a voice as cultural prophets anymore?