Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Flip Side of God's Grace [Jonah 4] (4 September 2011)

Many of you would probably know that India is mentioned in Esther 1:1. But how many of you know that Bangalore is alluded to in the bible? In fact, the allusion is in the passage we just read. If you are not convinced, perhaps a clip from Youtube would convince you.

Bangalore has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left! But jokes aside.

We were in the US when the great towers came crashing down. I had woken up late that day and Alice had already gone to work. As Prayerna slept – Tasha was not born yet – I did something I do not normally do. I switched the TV on. And was utterly shocked and dismayed. Unlike many people, the focus of my thoughts was not on how such an act of terror could have been successfully carried out. No! My focus was on the thousands who had woken up that morning, said goodbye to their families, and then, within hours, had their lives snuffed out. Why? Why such injustice?

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t then have, nor do I now have, any delusion that the USA was God’s chosen country and could never do any wrong! But does anyone truly deserve to die like that? And why do such things happen?

Within two days of the disaster, while so many people in the USA and around the world were searching and yearning for answers, we had prominent Christian leaders present their view of why the towers fell. Here is one.

Last week, we dealt with Jonah 3 and heard about how the Ninevites repented on hearing Jonah’s message and that God, seeing their repentance, did not destroy the city.

Jonah 4 begins with an angry Jonah remembering what had transpired between him and God the first time God had given him the task to proclaim a message to Nineveh. “I knew,” 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.” 

This is almost an Old Testament creedal statement. It is almost verbatim from Psalm 145:8. It appears also in Joel 2:13, Exodus 34:6-7, Psalm 86:15, Psalm 103:8, and Psalm 111:4 and with similar ideas, though not verbatim anymore, in Nehemiah 9:17 and 2 Chronicles 30:9. But this occurrence in Jonah is the only one in which the speaker is angry and disappointed and dissatisfied. 

On Jonah’s lips, this statement of faith becomes almost an indictment. It is as though Jonah turns this statement of comfort and assurance on its head and makes it into an accusation. “I knew” is Jonah pointing his finger at God.

“I knew... that is why I did not go.” “I knew... that if I went, that would introduce the possibility that they would repent.” “And I knew... that if they did you would forgive.”

For Jonah, the world is crumbling. The Lord of heaven and earth is not punishing those who deserve to be punished. The Ninevites had not just sown violence, they had been downright evil. Let me quote from the annals of King Ashurnasirpal II who reigned from 883-859BC.

"I slaughtered them; with their blood I dyed the mountain red like wool…. The heads of their warriors I cut off, and I formed them into a pillar over against their city; their young men and their maidens I burned in the fire. … I destroyed, I demolished, I burned. I took their warriors prisoner and impaled them on stakes before their cities. I flayed the nobles, as many as had rebelled, and spread their skins out on the piles of dead corpses… Many of the captives I burned in a fire. Many I took alive; from some I cut off their hands to the wrist, from others I cut off their noses, ears and fingers; I put out the eyes of many of the soldiers.”
So powerful was the Assyrian army and so brutal and inhumane their methods of torture, that whole nations just surrendered rather than run the risk of being tortured. They had taken intimidation and torture to new heights – or perhaps we should say depths.

The Ninevites had sown violence. There was no doubt about that. And Jonah asked, “Why did they not reap violence at the hand of God? Why are they not being punished as they deserve?”

Jonah cannot believe that there is no justice in the world, that God will not be just and do what is right. God is gracious and compassionate to his people because he promised that he would be. But he made no promises to the others right? So he can be the wrathful judge toward the others right?

And so Jonah goes outside the city, makes himself a shelter and sits in its shade. But even here the story drips with irony. No sooner have we been told that Jonah has built a shelter than we read that God provided a vine to give Jonah shade and to ease his discomfort. The shelter Jonah had built was just not enough. Even here, while he is angry with God, it is God’s provision that enables him to live on. And Jonah is quite content and presumably he slept soundly.

But the next day his sleep is disturbed by the simple fact that the vine was inside a worm! God had sent a worm to eat up the entire vine. And that worm is doing a very great job. Before Jonah could even understand what was happening, the worm has decimated the vine.

If Jonah was annoyed then, his troubles were only beginning, for God now sends a sirocco, so hot and dry and furious that all the humidity vanishes and the sun dehydrates Jonah to the point where once again he expresses a desire to die.

In his view, even though he may have run away the first time, he has come around and done what God had asked him to do. In his eyes he is a righteous person, one who should enjoy the blessings and grace of God and not an evildoer who should be punished by God. But in his eyes he is being punished.

Not only has God refused to punish those who everyone would denounce as violent evildoers, but also he now punishes his reluctant, but obedient messenger. And this is an unjust world, Jonah concludes, not one in which he would like to live anymore. 

This is a world in which God allows good things to happen to bad people and bad things to happen to good people. To use the stronger wording of Jonah, God orchestrates bad things happening to good people while at the same time refusing to let bad things happen to bad people. 

Jonah can live in a world in which good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. That is a predictable world in which he would be able to function. Evildoers should be punished.

Why does Jonah think this way? He wants a black and white world, where cause and effect are closely linked. As you sow, so shall you reap. If you sow violence, you reap punishment. If you sow faithfulness, you reap blessings.

So many of us would like the world to work that way. If it were true that you reap what you sow, then we need not be in anguish because someone is suffering or if someone suddenly falls ill or if someone is being mistreated by others. After all, if we reap what we sow then evil and suffering are not mysteries. Rather, they reveal what was sown.

And so how often have we concluded from the situation a person is in that he or she has done some evil, sinned in some way? Have we not entertained the thought that someone’s suffering is due to that person’s sin? We join the ranks of Job’s friends and point the accusing finger.

The clip we saw earlier is unsettling to me. Unsettling because we all have that tendency in us – to greater or lesser degrees. Like Jonah, we are quick to resort to the law of cause and effect when dealing with others. Have we not said – at least in our hearts – God will punish those evil doers, those... and here you can fill in the sin that troubles you the most?

In the clip you are about to see, Gandalf provides a sobering word to Frodo in the Lord of the Rings.

Have we at times been like Jonah, disappointed that evil did not befall those who we think are sinners and evildoers? Have we been quick to embrace God’s grace and compassion when it is directed to us while at the same time yearning for recompense for those whom we believe are sinful?

Jonah ends in a strange way. The story has no closure. It is open ended, the plot unfinished. Because it ends with God asking a question. And the question is directed toward the reader. “Should I not be concerned?” is God’s question. When we find ourselves thinking that judgment will befall a person or a group of persons we are to go back to this book and ask ourselves, “Should God not be concerned?”

And our response is critical. The law of cause and effect is the law of karma, make no mistake. Do we really want the law of karma active in our lives? Do we want that predictable world in which everything can be explained? Or have we readers realized – unlike stubborn Jonah – that God’s gracious compassion is what frees us – and even those whom we consider evildoers – from the tyranny of cause and effect? 

1 comment:

  1. We are so quick to wish judgement on others... little do we see that we are also as guilty and worthy of punishment. Could you make the link to the Bangalore traffic clip open in a new page/tab like you did with the LOTR.

    Many blessings! May God use you mightily to speak to His people.