Thursday, August 04, 2005

The American Church in the belly of the whale

Jonah has been on my mind recently. The story of Jonah is one of the most relevant Old Testament narratives to the church today. You can read the entire book of Jonah here, but allow me to quickly paraphrase for the purposes of expedition:

Jonah was a Hebrew prophet of God who was given explicit direction to go to Nineveh, a large city of great evil, and evangelize. Instead, Jonah fled from the direction of God, got caught in a God-inspired stormy sea, got thrown over the side of the boat, and swallowed by a whale. Jonah spent three days in the whale until he called out to God to be spared. God spared him, and Jonah, now perfectly humbled, went to Nineveh where one of the greatest revivals of all time occurred. Even the King of Nineveh repented of his evil ways.

If you remember this story from Sunday School, this is probably where you believe the story ends. But it's not the end. Chapters 3 and 4 go to great lengths to reveal the heart of Jonah and why he fled the Ninevites: Jonah hated the Ninevites and fully expected God to destroy the city, much like Sodom and Gomorrah. When the Ninevites repented and God spared them, Jonah -- who had willfully disobeyed God himself and was spared from an unusual punishment -- was bitter that God had not destroyed them. Jonah's prayer to God was to die, because he would rather die than witness the continued existence of the people of his missionary work. God's final response to Jonah reveals God's heart to his elect -- to which we are rarely privy until He calls them to Him:

Jonah 4:10And the LORD said, "You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?"

It's important to note Jonah had flawless theology: God is a God of righteousness. God hates and punishes wickedness. Jonah understood his role, he just refused it because he did not think God's sparing of Nineveh was fair or consistent. In short, Jonah's view of God did not fit in the tightly constructed box of theology he had been taught in the formality of his Hebrew education. We are not told why God chose to spare Nineveh, only that he had pity on them, perhaps because they had never properly heard of the God of Abraham.

Jonah, fleeing from God's direction to minister to the wicked. This is where I see so much of the American Church, fleeing from God's direction to preach the Gospel, stuck in the belly of the whale. Churches giving a small portion to missionaries around the world while dumping truckloads into new carpet and comfortable chairs and sound equipment to better preach the choir and reinforce how wicked are the cities that encompass them.

I see no small amount of irony that even in Jonah's disobedience, he cannot help but transform the world around him. Upon concluding Jonah was the curse of the boat, the sailors were convicted by the power of God to chase after Jonah, and became earnest believers in spite of Jonah's reluctance to obey God. We are incapable of getting in God's way.

But here in this New Covenant reality, we have a Great Commission that does not require a prophet or another word from God. We already know what we are supposed to do: Make disciples of all nations, baptize them, teach them. This is not something we should cower from because of the wickedness of the world. If God wants to redeem someone, they cannot resist. We should not fear rejection, and we should definitely not fall into Jonah's trap of being bitter at the evil nature of the unregenerate -- particularly when we our hearts reveal wickedness that betrays God's love for us.

In seems to me Jonah's story is a call to engage the wicked, not hide from them. We are to preach in all the uncomfortable and awkward challenges of secular life, looking for what God is doing in those people. Jonah was not bold, he was inspired. Jonah was not a great evangalizer, God was. Jonah was not an overcomer, but he had to be overcome by God so God could overcome the hearts of the wicked.

Where our hearts for the lost today? Where are we engaging the lost that does not require them to first step across the threshhold of our theology before they can receive God's redemption plan? How are we being fishers of men that does not first lead us to clean the fish before we have them in the boat?

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