Jonah [God in the Ruins]

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One of the hardest tasks of the preacher is to take a well-known part of Scripture and make it fresh for people again. This past weekend at Eastbrook, I tried to do just that as I preached on Jonah in our series on the minor prophets, “God in the Ruins.”

Unlike all the other minor prophets, Jonah tells a story about the life of Jonah instead of collecting messages from that prophet.

The prophet Jonah is mentioned one other place in the Bible in 2 Kings 14:25 as a prophet in the northern kingdom during the reign of Jeroboam II. This tells us that, if taken at face value, Jonah’s story would have taken place chronologically during the 8th century BC, at a similar time as Amos, during the 40-year reign of Jeroboam II (786-746 BC).

Because the story of the book of Jonah is told so dramatically in the book of Jonah, there is a lot of debate about its genre: is it historical, is it a parable, is it a real story told in an imaginative style. Regardless of the outcome on those issues, the message of the book is clear:

We can run from it or we can receive it, but the mercy of God is greater than we understand.

You can watch my message from this past weekend and follow along with the message outline below. You can also engage with the entire series on the minor prophets here or download the Eastbrook mobile app for even more opportunities to connect.

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A Prayer inspired by the prophet Jonah

Almighty God,
You are the powerful Creator
of all the nations upon earth.
You are holy and wonderful
beyond what we understand.

We look at Jonah and we are startled
by his insolence in running away from You,
by his humility in recognizing Your rescue,
and his anger at Your mercy to those
he felt did not desire to receive it.

We are startled because we know
that same insolence, humility, and anger
run through our own lives and hearts.

Have mercy on us, our God,
and transform us from the inside out
that we might love what You love
and hate what you hate.
That our lives might overflow
with mercy like You overflow with  mercy.

All this we pray, through Jesus Christ,
our Savior and Deliverer,
to whom, with You and the Holy Spirit
be honor and glory, now and forever.
Amen.

Hesed: the lovingkindness of God in Hosea

hesed

In the purposes of God, Hosea’s life was a message to God’s people about the ways God would show love to His people. With Hosea’s life as a reference point, God tells the people He will relate to them like a faithful and loving husband relates to his wife. In particular, God will steadfastly love His people, even though they have become like a wife who strays in her heart and actions. This is how Hosea describes that love, speaking on behalf of God to His people:

“I will betroth you to me forever;
I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,
in love and compassion.
I will betroth you in faithfulness,
and you will acknowledge the Lord.” (Hosea 2:19-20)

The love of God is undeserved and extravagant. God’s love is beyond our understanding and enduring.

In the midst of those verses there is one little word that I want to give more attention to in this post. It is the word translated as “love” here in Hosea 2:19, and it becomes a theme throughout the prophecies of Hosea. That word is, in Hebrew, hesed. It is one of the most significant words in the Hebrew Bible. Hesed speaks both of the reality of God’s character and the ideal of His people’s character.

It is sometimes translated as ‘love’ or ‘steadfast love’ to convey the persevering love, tender affection, and ongoing care one person has for another.

It is sometimes translated as ‘mercy’ to convey an undeserved kindness or passing over of deserved judgment.

It is sometimes translated as ‘covenant faithfulness’ to convey the loyalty of one partner to another in promises made. Hesed speaks of fulfilling the promises fully in action and attitude.

Hesed is the sort of thing we see in the best of friendships, in the most-enduring marriages, in athletic teams that band together to achieve a goal, in soldiers who stick together through hell and high water, and partnerships in business or non-profits that attain their highest goals while upholding honorable relationships.

In Hosea 2, we’re told that God’s hesed is so great and strong that He will not ultimately forsake His people but will faithfully love them forever and loyally care for them based on the promises of His covenants with Abraham, Moses, and David. Even though Israel is a faltering and weak partner in those promises, God will be faithful. In fact, God is saying that because of Israel’s inability to exhibit hesed, God will pick up the slack, so to speak, and bring it all to fruition because He is a hesed sort of God. He is merciful. He is faithful. He is loving.

God shows us what true love is like, what faithfulness is like, what mercy is like. It begins with Him and it changes Israel – and all of us who encounter God.

Perhaps you know what it is like to be loved with an enduring, tender, faithful love. Perhaps you have had a friend who has stuck with you in difficult times. Perhaps you have had a family member – a daughter or son, a father or mother, a brother or sister, an auntie or uncle – who has been there for you when no one else has. Perhaps you have experienced unwarranted mercy from a colleague at work, a teacher at school, a business partner, or neighbor. All of these experiences of love, mercy, and faithfulness change us. When you have that on your side, it helps you stand up again, get going, and feel supported in whatever may come.

So, too, when we encounter the love, mercy, and faithfulness of God, it changes us. The story of Hosea begins, as we even explored last weekend, with the powerful love of God.

God’s love – his hesed – is so strong for His people that He will do whatever it takes to recapture them with His love. And when we begin with that love, mercy, and faithfulness of God it should change who we are and how we live.

Our Longing for Justice and Need for Mercy

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One of our strongest longings as human beings is a longing for justice. We long for our lives and the world around us to be bounded by what is just, right, true, and fair without impartiality.

In presidential elections, both here and around the world, we long for fairness in the process so that votes are counted and people are given necessary attention. This is why we have impartial monitoring groups paying attention to elections around the world. This longing for justice is behind the outcries that arise when human rights are violated, whether around the world or here in our own country. International watchdog groups give voice to the helpless or the ignored so that justice can be brought to bear in their lives. We long for justice because we experience injustice and sin in our world.

This is a biblical concept that flows throughout the Bible. When we wonder what God is like, we inevitably encounter the God of the Bible as a God of justice. The Torah calls for maintaining justice and dealing appropriately with the wrongs in the world: protecting widows, orphans, foreigners and the weak in the face of a difficult world. The Hebrew word, mishpat, is the word most often translated as ‘justice’ in the Old Testament. It conveys the idea of right and appropriate order of a just cause being maintained in the world. When we ask the question, “What is God like?”, we discover that at least one answer is this: He is a God of justice.

But here is something interesting. Even as we long for complete justice in the world, we encounter our own need for leniency. We call for justice for wrongs done by some to us or others, but we often hesitate when we do wrongs ourselves.

When a toddler has his toy taken by another child who did not ask, the toddler cries out for the toy to be returned. It was taken unfairly. But, it comes as a great surprise to that same toddler when he is placed in a time-out for unfairly taking a toy without asking from one of his peers later on. Justice looks good from one perspective, but looks a bit more painful when justice hits closer to us personally.

In 1984, Jennifer Thompson was a 22-year-old college student with a promising life ahead of her. But when a man broke into her apartment and assaulted her on a warm summer night, she vowed to put him in jail for the rest of her life. When the police gathered a lineup of men for her to identify, she pointed to man #5: Ronald Cotton, as the perpetrator. In the 1985 trial, Cotton was sentenced to life in prison with little hope of release. Justice had been served, or so it appeared.

11 years later, Jennifer Thompson received a knock at the door of her home. She had moved on, gotten married, had children, but every day for 11 years, she had been praying for Ronald Cotton to die. The detective at her door had some important news for her. After a review of evidence through advanced DNA testing, it became clear that Ronald Cotton was not her assailant but, rather, another man already in prison, Bobby Poole. Ronald Cotton was not guilty.

11 years. Ronald Cotton falsely imprisoned. Jennifer Thompson held in a prison of anger. The tables had been turned and Jennifer Thompson said, “I was overwhelmed with guilt and shame for mistakenly putting an innocent man in prison….I found it almost impossible to forgive myself.”

So, when Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson were reunited, she begged for forgiveness. Ronald Cotton took her hands, and with tears in his eyes, told her that he had forgiven her a long time ago.

Ronald Cotton said that both he and Jennifer were victims of the same man. They both became wounded, but they both began to heal. He said, “I choose to forgive…so that I stay free and not be a prisoner the rest of my life.”[1]

You see, we long for justice – for things to be set right in our lives and world – but we also long for mercy because we all need it. The chasm of injustice and sin runs right through our world and also right through us. 

In Matthew 18, Jesus tells a story about a servant who was gravely indebted to a king for a tremendous amount of money. He owed the king so much money, in fact, that as a day laborer it would have taken him about 3,000 lifetimes to pay the debt off. When the king brought this man in to settle the debt – to experience justice – the servant begged for mercy. Seeing the servant’s pleas, the king decided to cancel the debt and give the man a new lease on life. Justice was going to be served but instead the servant received mercy.

Returning home, this servant encountered a fellow servant who owed him about four month’s wages and began to choke him, commanding him to repay the debt. Although this other servant too begged for mercy, the first servant denied it and had the man thrown in prison.

The king eventually heard of this situation and called the servant in. Hadn’t this servant owed the king more than he could repay in 3,000 lifetimes? Hadn’t the king shown mercy and cancelled the debt? And now the servant had thrown another man in prison for a debt of four month’s pay? Where is the justice in this lack of mercy?

We long for justice, but human justice can, honestly, at times be unjust. The encounter with justice leads us ultimately into a plea for mercy.  We long for mercy because we know we all need it. The chasm of injustice and sin runs right through our own souls as well.

What good news it is that the God of the Bible is both a God of justice and a God of mercy. One of the most prevalent cries in the psalms is for mercy: “Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony” (Psalm 6:2). And one of the most resounding themes of the entire Bible is that God is a God of mercy:

  • “Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.” (Isaiah 55:7)
  • “We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy.” (Daniel 9:18)
  • “You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.” (Micah 7:18)

It is in the character of God to be both just and merciful. We struggle to bring these two characteristics together, but God is capable of bringing both to bear upon human lives in a way that also reflects His wisdom.

Ultimately we encounter this within the work of Jesus Christ, whose ministry is one of both justice and mercy. James’ description of the Christian reality speaks to the ministry of Jesus: “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). Paul’s marvelous summary of the good news in Ephesians 2, finds its center in the mercy of God:

All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:3-5)

What a gift that our strongest longing for justice meets with our strongest need for mercy in Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God. What is God like? He is a God of justice and a God of mercy.

 


[1] “Finding Freedom In Forgiveness,” NPR – This I Believe, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=101469307, November 26, 2011.

Mercy

As we continued our journey with the Psalms of Ascent, “Ascend,” this past weekend at Eastbrook, I opened up Psalm 130 for us. I explored the mercy of God as part of our spiritual journey with God in terms of prayer, forgiveness, waiting, and hope. In the midst of that I brought in the story of Jonah, illuminating parallel verses in Ephesians and Jude, an excerpt from Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, and a reflection on the life of Viktor Frankl.

You can watch the message and follow along with the sermon outline below. You can access the entire series at our web-site, through the Eastbrook app, or through our audio podcast. We also have a reading plan for this series, which you can participate with here.

 

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