COLUMN: Creatively linked to one another

Published 1:56 pm Sunday, January 28, 2024

Back in 2012, The Christian Century posed a challenge to some then current theological thinkers: tell the Gospel in seven words. Here are a few examples of what resulted.

Martin E. Marty wrote “God, through Jesus Christ, loves us anyhow.” Baylor Professor Beverly Gaventa offered, “In Christ, God’s ‘yes’ defeats our ‘no.’” Pastor Martin Copenhaver’s contribution was “God gets the last word.” Nadia Bolz Weber gave us this one: “We are who God says we are.

This week, we look at Jonah’s work of evangelism in Jonah3: 1-5, 10 at Nineveh. Nineveh was a huge city. A three days’ walk, the text tells us. Jonah ventures in not quite a full day’s journey and he begins his missionary effort.

Nineveh was a terrible place if you were an ancient Hebrew. As one scholar has said, the notion that God could have compassion for the people of Nineveh was about as disgusting a thought as you could imagine. 

After thinking he could run away from God, being tracked down by a storm, gobbled up by a whale, spat out onto dry ground and given a second chance at this, you’d think there’d be no shutting Jonah up.

You would suppose that he would be bursting at the seams to tell the people of Nineveh about the grace that found a wretch like him. About grace that is greater than all our sin. About how God is steadfast in mercy and abounding in love. 

Just given the story of his own recent life, Jonah had more than enough reason for praise, for gratitude and for testimony. When he opened his mouth to say it, here’s what came out. “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown!”  

Eight words in our English translations. Five in the original Hebrew with which this story was written. That’s all the text tells us he offered to the people of Nineveh. After receiving grace upon grace, chance after chance after chance, Jonah went to Nineveh and did as little as he could possibly get away with.

In v6-9, the King got on board. As one writer points out, so much of the Old Testiment is about how people suffer abuse when people of power wield it irresponsibly. Here in Jonah we have a story where a powerful leader gets on board with Yahweh God and compels his people to follow.

As scholar Joy Moore says, this is a story of God’s dogged determination to not give up on an imperfect humanity that time-after-time fails to live healthfully together. A God who has not given up on redeeming us even though we mess up. It shows that forgiveness is possible. It shows a God who is saying, “All you have to do is do what I say. And let me do what I do best.” 

Karoline Lewis suggests that none of this is too easy, though. She suggests we should understand something important– that a Jonah lurks inside every Christian heart. 

How easy it is for us to look on Jesus’ ministry and see moments where we whisper to God, “No, not me. Don’t call me to do that, please, God.” 

These stories remind us though of why all this is happening in the first place. Humanity will tend to resist the boundaries and niceties, the challenges and awarenesses of being Creatively connected to one another. Yet that is precisely how God made us.

One Jewish Midrash refers to the Jonah story. It concludes with this thought. Don’t be like Jonah. The scorned Ninevites came to see and to revere God more than Jonah did. The foreign fishermen respected God more than Jonah did. 

But here may be the very best news of the whole story. With Jonah’s half-hearted effort, God still worked powerfully with the Ninevites. This is not concluding that you or I don’t need to try very hard. That’s not the lesson. 

Instead, we might take away a couple of better points. First, God asks of us better than Jonah gave. The book of Jonah finishes with Jonah still mad at God because God made him prophesy to the Ninevites and then saved them. God wants us to join in whole-heartedly and see our world more as God sees it. 

Finally, even if what Jonah gave is all we can muster, God will work with whatever God has to work with. God will save with or without us. God will redeem with or without us. God will move forward on mission, with or without us.

Dr. Charles Qualls is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 757-562-5135.