Last week I attended our denomination's annual meeting: the Covenant of which we are a part, sees itself as a gathering of members, only the members are each churches. Together, those churches pursue Jesus' work in the world, able to do more than each could by themselves.
The focus for our meetings together was "the necessity of the new birth" - this is one of our affirmations; for more info, check out www.covchurch.org -- and at one evening's worship service, our director of evangelism, was the preacher.
Her text was Jonah, and here's what she challenged us with: Jonah, we read in the Bible, was sent to Nineveh to tell the people there that they were in trouble with God and were about to be judged. But Jonah runs away (remember that whole story about the big fish?). Ultimately, Jonah accepts his assignment, goes to Nineveh and brings the message - and then he gets himself a ringside seat to watch God wipe out Nineveh.
But instead, the Ninevites take him seriously! They turn from their depravity and seek God's face and desire to be made friends with God - and God takes them up on it.
You'd think that would be good news, but not to Jonah. Jonah is put out! He wanted fire and brimstone; he wanted them to "get it."
Then we read in the Bible this strange set of circumstances; while Jonah waits on that hillside in the searing sun, God causes a plant to grow up quickly, and Jonah finds shade under its leaves. But the next night, God allows a worm to chew through Jonah's plant, and Jonah finds himself without shelter in the baking sun again, and he declares he is ready to die.
And God calls him on it: Jonah, you're so concerned about your own comfort, and you complain and argue. But there's no room in your heart for the Ninevites..."who don't know their right hand from their left." God makes it plain that God's heart always was for the Ninevites, and it sets up in stark contrast the venal, self-regarding heart of Jonah, who didn't give a fig for the Ninevites and was disappointed that they didn't get punished, but was consumed with concern for his own comfort.
Rev. Orris put the question then to us: are we more concerned with our own comfort, or have we cultivated hearts like God's, that begin to hurt for those around us who don't know their Maker and Father, who "don't know their right hand from their left"? If we aren't telling others the good news, what reason do we have for that?
I'm not sure if it was Rev. Orris who said it or if it the Holy Spirit's challenge to my own heart, but I am reminded again that my relationship with God through Jesus isn't because of my own merit or even that of my parents, but instead it was Jesus who loved me before I was even able to love him. I am, through no merit of my own, "God's workmanship," chosen to do good works which were prepared for me in advance. (Eph 2:10). The word for "workmanship" is poema, from which we get "poem" -- we are God's craftmanship, his work of art, which pleases him and makes us ready to do what he's given us to do.
So I can't sit on the hillside and wait for the world to go to hell in a handbasket. If it weren't for the grace of God I'd be in that handbasket! So am I sitting in the hot sun, deploring the lack of shade, wondering why God isn't making me happy? Or am I out there in the world, open to being used by God to help someone else find new life and hope in the One who loves us so much?
Has it become obvious to me that, instead of being poised to punish the world, God has already taken the punishment of the world on himself, that his crowning creation might be rescued?
Jonah really comes off as a whiner in the scriptures, and yet I was touched by God's continuing work with him, patiently showing him how his whining demonstrated how far he was from the heart of God. God is patient, but it would be great if I could learn from Jonah's mistakes!