Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Mystery in the Desert

With the 'funny paper' in hand, I remember crawling up on my Daddy's lap as a girl. Sunday mornings were such a special time. Frame by frame he would tell a story beyond the words on page. The characters would come to life as I clung to every word.

As I grew older, Mom would read chapter books to me like Bambi and Bambi's Children, The Secret Garden. I would sit back immersed, soaking in the story and forming pictures in my mind.

These early childhood memories cultivated a love for reading and the written word. I have read hundreds of books in my lifetime. Genres of every kind: sci-fi, crime thriller, romance novel, Bible study, historical novel,the list goes on. 

And no matter the story, they all follow the same pattern: a beginning, a middle and an end.

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Every book is unique. Some are better than others. It may lack that 'hook' from the beginning, but if you keep reading, a good story opens up. Sometimes the middle is too shallow or too repetitive or just plain boring. And sometimes the close of a book makes you want to go back and rewrite an alternate ending yourself.

But none the less, you are hard pressed to find a book that gets into the meat of a story and then just stops. The characters are usually well-developed and come full circle. There are no loose ends. It is signed, sealed and delivered in a nice, pretty little bow.

All except one...

The scariest book I've ever read

Some books I can't read at night because I'm too chicken. Crime-thrillers, mysteries, Stephen King novels, books that make me jump at the slightest noise in my house. Stories where I dread to turn the page yet can't bear to put it down because the excitement is too intense.

But those do not come close to the book that incites fear deep within my soul.

I'm talking about the book of Jonah.

Yes, the Jonah we learned about in Sunday School. The one who was called to Nineveh to preach and ran to Tarshish instead. The one who finds himself on a ship surrounded by angry shipmates because the storm raging was his fault. The one who was thrown overboard and swallowed by a whale-fish. That Jonah.

And it's not for the afore mentioned Sunday School story either. No, at the end of chapter two in this four chapter book, Jonah has survived the whole whale ordeal and is spit onto the shore, fully intact.

Chapter three shows Jonah's obedience. He travels the city of Nineveh preaching a message that God will destroy the Ninevites in 40 days unless they turn from their wicked ways. His message penetrates the hearts and the minds of the people and they believe.

The king goes so far to say in verse nine "Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish."

And in verse ten, God does just that. Because of the Ninevites' genuine turn around, he decides not to destroy Nineveh after all.

Now, if God chose to end the book here, what a nice pretty little bow. Jonah has conflict, he finally obeys, the people are saved, God's great, the end.

But you do remember I said there were four chapters in the book of Jonah, right?

The desert...

Chapter four begins with Jonah praying a very angry prayer to God. Verse two reveals the real reason Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh. Jonah says, "I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity."

Jonah knew God would change His mind. He saw the Ninevites living in deep sin knowing God was going to destroy them and he wanted to leave them there. He didn't want to give them the chance to repent and turn. In his mind, their fate was sealed.

I'm not sure what happens in the prequel of Jonah's life, but somewhere along the way he has received great grace. In chapter two, he had just praised God for answering his own cry for help as he sank to the depths of the ocean. And God spared him. Yet he didn't want anyone else to receive that blessing.

God asks Jonah a question in verse four of chapter four: "Is it right for you to be angry?"

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There is no recorded answer, but Jonah flees to the dessert. He builds shelter for himself and he sits down to burn in the sun and his anger. God sends a green leafy plant to grow and provide shade for Jonah easing his discomfort. Apparently, the shelter Jonah had built himself wasn't enough to shield the intense sun.

Jonah was happy about the plant. He accepted this blessing from the Lord.

But the next day, God sent a worm to eat the plant. He also sent a scorching wind and a blazing sun. Jonah was in such misery he asked to die.

But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnightAnd should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” ~Jonah 4:10-11 
...And you ask, Becky, what is so scary about a plant and worm in a desert? 

It's not what is in the story that terrifies me. It's what is not there.

That verse ends the book. 

A question from God. 

There is no verse 12. No chapter five. That's the story of Jonah. We leave him in the desert wanting to die, bitter that God is gracious and compassionate over a judgement that Jonah wanted to own.

We have no idea what happens to him. Did he repent? Did he accept God's love and compassion for others he didn't feel worthy? Or did he die a bitter death right there in that desert?

I'm no scholar, but I think that if there was a change in Jonah's heart that glorified God, we would know about it. 

Make no mistake, God does not leave the story incomplete. There is a clear beginning, middle and end. But God's concern from the beginning was not Jonah. It was Nineveh. 

Jonah is mentioned one more time in the Gospel of Matthew and again in Luke. Jesus is asked by the Pharisees, the teachers of the law in that day, to show them a sign. His reply: no sign will be given except for the sign of Jonah. In Matthew 12:40 Jesus says: "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth."

God chose to use Jonah for His good. Jonah had a hand in bringing 120,000 people to redemption in Nineveh. God even uses him later to reference the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. But did he die a bitter man, wrapped in self-righteousness, angry that God had compassion on ones he thought should be unforgivable?

I hope I'm wrong. I hope when I get to heaven I'll see Jonah and hear stories of man-swallowing fish and grace found and a heart changed in a desert.

But if I'm right... Oh God, have mercy on us. 

Gracious Father, 
Help us to not sit in self-righteousness that we know better than You. Help us want Your grace and compassion for each and every soul that needs to turn to You. Do not let our bitter and angry and selfish ways overshadow your grace and mercy and compassion. You are abounding in love and slow to anger. Your grace runs as a waterfall over our sin and cleanses us. Help us to remember that grace, as water flows has no boundary. That Your love can change any heart. And we must trust Your ways. 
In Your name we pray,

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