Rooting for the Anti-hero (Jonah)

Scripture Focus: Jonah 4.1-4
4 But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 
4 But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 

Reflection: Rooting for the Anti-hero (Jonah)
By John Tillman

Most lessons I heard about Jonah in my youth over-emphasized the positives of the story to make Jonah into a reluctant anti-hero who started out in the wrong direction but did the job in the end. (This usually meant stopping before chapter four.) 

In this version, we sympathize when anti-hero Jonah flees to Tarshish because he fears the Ninevites killing him. Then we cheer for his willingness to die to save the sailors. However, this version of the story conceals the truth. Jonah made no heroic sacrifice. He was willing to die to ensure his enemies, the Ninevites, died. Saving the sailors was a side-effect.

Jonah spent three days praying in the fish, a monster of the deep. Hopeless, Jonah had nothing other than the ability to call on God. He imagined sacrificing to God in the temple and proclaiming, “Salvation comes from the Lord.” Then, salvation came. God commanded the fish to return him to dry land.

Jonah preached God’s message for three days traveling through the belly of Nineveh, a monster of a city, not just in size but in nature. Scripture doesn’t give us Jonah’s entire message, but the summary isn’t exactly inspiring: “40 days and it’s over!

In seminary, our performance group created a short play about Jonah. The piece was geared for comedy, but we portrayed Jonah as distinctly unheroic. The actor portraying Jonah “preached” to Nineveh in an annoyed, angry, and unsympathetic monotone. But the message took hold anyway. “Salvation comes from the Lord.”

Jonah was angry when God relented but not surprised. He tells God, “I knew you were too soft and forgiving. That’s why I didn’t want to come.” Jonah’s hatred of the Ninevites was intense and based on his bitter life experience. He’d seen God judge them before and wanted to see it again.

God will have mercy on whom he has mercy. If we are honest, there are times we find ourselves, like Jonah, disagreeing with God about the “whom.” We all have a Nineveh—a person or group we have a hard time loving, evangelizing, and accepting. Jonah wasn’t wrong in his assessment of Nineveh’s blameworthiness, but he miscalculated the measure of God’s mercy.

When God has mercy, is it right for us to be angry? Who do we root for in this story?

It’s not Jonah. And it’s not us. Don’t underestimate God’s mercy. “Salvation comes from the Lord.”

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
May God be merciful to us and bless us, show us the light of his countenance and come to us.
Let your ways be known upon earth, your saving health among all nations. — Psalm 67.1-2

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

​Today’s Readings
Jonah 4 (Listen 1:56)
Psalm 78.38-72 (Listen 7:12)

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Read more about When Ninevites Believe
God holds out hope for Nineveh and, in some cases, may entrust us to take the gospel to them. May we be faithful.

When Ninevites Believe

Scripture Focus: Jonah 3.3-5a
3 Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. 4 Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” 5 The Ninevites believed God…

Reflection: When Ninevites Believe
By John Tillman

Jonah didn’t want Nineveh to turn. He wanted them to burn. After preaching through the city for three days, Jonah climbed a hill and watched, hoping to glory in destruction, not mercy.

Jonah had practical reasons for fear, hatred, and despair. He feared their reaction. He hated them for their evil deeds. He despaired that they would ever change or repent.

But the Ninevites believed, and Jonah couldn’t believe it.

Unexpectedly, the people he feared violence from turned from violence to fear God. The people he had given up to wickedness gave up their wickedness and called on the Lord. The people he hoped would suffer for the suffering they caused experienced repentance and mercy.

I have Ninevites in my life and probably you do too. They are the people I’ve given up on. People whose reactions I fear. People who’ve harmed me. People I long to see fall under God’s justice.

Don’t forget that our enemies are loved by God. Jonah was sent to minister to those who had traumatized his country. Nineveh wasn’t just a random evil city. It was the capital of the Assyrian Empire that had been raiding Israel’s borders for decades. Jonah was unable to see them as God saw them, with compassion and sympathy.

Don’t expect God to deal with evil in the way we want him to. Jonah had prophesied against Assyria before. On that occasion, God used a wicked king of Israel to deliver his suffering people from the wicked Assyrians. (2 Kings 14.23-27) Jonah’s experience with Ninevites was as enemies on the battlefield, and he wanted God to treat them as such.

Jonah’s story tells us that it is a long, difficult journey to see those who’ve caused harm repent. There are storms. There are monsters. There are prayers from the depths. There is anger. There is suffering. There is questioning.

God goes with us through every bit of that journey. He lets us feel our feelings and rage our anger. He treats us with mercy we don’t deserve and then turns around and treats our enemies the same.

We don’t have to deny or hide our feelings about Ninevites. However, God holds out hope for Nineveh and, in some cases, may entrust us to take the gospel to them. May we be faithful.

God’s glory is best seen in his mercy. May we be able to celebrate when Ninevites believe.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
God looks down from heaven upon us all, to see if there is any who is wise, if there is one who seeks after God. — Psalm 53.2

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

​Today’s Readings

Jonah 3 (Listen 1:31)
Psalm 78.1-37 (Listen 7:12)

Read more about The Maddest Prophet, The Saddest Prophet

Imagine a Ukrainian prophet commanded to take a message of mercy to Moscow and you might have an inkling of what Jonah felt like…

Read more about When God Has Mercy…Will We?
Jonah held his bitterness so deeply that the depths of the sea couldn’t wash it away and the sun couldn’t burn it away. How deeply will we hold on to ours?

Lesson of Edom

Scripture Focus: Obadiah 12, 15-17
12 You should not gloat over your brother 
in the day of his misfortune, 
nor rejoice over the people of Judah 
in the day of their destruction, 
nor boast so much 
in the day of their trouble.

15 “The day of the Lord is near 
for all nations. 
As you have done, it will be done to you; 
your deeds will return upon your own head. 
16 Just as you drank on my holy hill, 
so all the nations will drink continually; 
they will drink and drink 
and be as if they had never been. 
17 But on Mount Zion will be deliverance; 
it will be holy, 
and Jacob will possess his inheritance.

From John: Last week, another leader I looked up to left ministry due to a moral failure. The organization, I think, will eventually be fine. But it is a shaking blow. Many leaders or heroes of mine have fallen in one way or another. Pride, politics, or sexual scandals have taken them down. Sometimes I’ve been glad to see them humbled or stopped after what they became. I’ve also seen God’s grace in rebuilding after a blow. A friend is now working at a church where a former hero of mine fell in 2019. Years after crisis and failure at the highest level, healing and repair are happening. As we witness these things, we return to this post from 2022 about the fall of Edom. Whether moral failure or abuse, whether regarding our enemies or our friends, we must not gloat or despair over truth being revealed or justice coming. Instead, let us turn inward to our own hearts and to the hearts of our own organizations. Let us examine our own foundations.

Reflection: Lesson of Edom
By John Tillman

Obadiah has a tightly focused vision. Don’t gloat or take pleasure at the downfall of others, especially your brothers and sisters.

We’ve often written about leaders, churches, and organizations that have been destroyed by revelations of misconduct and sin. We have said, “When sin is revealed and an organization crumbles, it was God who struck the blow, not an enemy.” 

Even though churches may be damaged, this destruction is not caused by “enemies of the church.” Those who reveal wrongdoing are cooperating with God. However, when we witness this, we should be humbled, not prideful. We should be mournful and mindful of our own vulnerabilities, not smug and boastful of our infallibility.

I have seen examples of this in my faith tradition. When the Catholic Church was rocked with sex abuse scandals in the early 2000s, many prominent Southern Baptists took it as an opportunity to put Catholicism on blast. They blamed celibacy, episcopal polity, and Catholic theology. They took victory laps on Twitter and in think pieces that pridefully postured their “superior” polity and ecclesiology as bulwarks against abuse.

As the revelations continue to roll in about sexual abuse in the SBC, it is clear that SBC polity, theology, and leadership were unable or unwilling to prevent abuse or protect the organization or the victims of abuse. The same practices and worse were occurring in our own house, even while we threw stones at our Catholic brethren. We didn’t learn from the Edomites.

What is the purpose of this comparison to Edom? 

We must look inward to examine the hearts of ourselves, our leaders, and our organizations. Just as there are some who wrongly label those who expose the truth about corruption as enemies, there are some who seem to take pleasure in the carnage of organizations stricken by scandal.

It is not that we shouldn’t celebrate justice, but we must temper our jubilance with the knowledge that we are equally vulnerable and prone to sin.

The point of Obidiah’s vision is that there is no corner of creation, no kingdom, no people over whom God does not hold authority. God intends to purify individuals, churches, and kingdoms through whatever means required. Where there is sin, he will expose it. Where there are victims he will be on the side of justice. May we stand with him.

Further Reading: Dr. Russell Moore, writing in 2019, “Southern Baptists Face Their #MeToo Moment”

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
I call with my whole heart; answer me, O Lord, that I may keep your statutes. — Psalm 119.145

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

​Today’s Readings
Obadiah 1 (Listen 3:28)
Psalm 74 (Listen 2:34)

​This Weekend’s Readings
Jonah 1 (Listen 2:29), Psalm 75-76 (Listen 2:33)
Jonah 2 (Listen 1:20), Psalm 77 (Listen 2:12)

Read more about When God Shakes Our Foundation
God is doing this, not an enemy. God is striking our pillars. God’s church is renewed by the removal of corrupt leaders.

Read more about No Princes
Unable to separate their faith from the identity of the leader, they abandon faith.

A Hint of Broken Curses

Scripture Focus: Amos 9.8-15
8 “Surely the eyes of the Sovereign Lord 
are on the sinful kingdom. 
I will destroy it 
from the face of the earth. 
Yet I will not totally destroy 
the descendants of Jacob,” 
declares the Lord. 
9 “For I will give the command, 
and I will shake the people of Israel 
among all the nations 
as grain is shaken in a sieve, 
and not a pebble will reach the ground. 
10 All the sinners among my people 
will die by the sword, 
all those who say, 
‘Disaster will not overtake or meet us.’ 
13 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, 
“when the reaper will be overtaken by the plowman 
and the planter by the one treading grapes. 
New wine will drip from the mountains 
and flow from all the hills, 
14 and I will bring my people Israel back from exile.
“They will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them. 
They will plant vineyards and drink their wine; 
they will make gardens and eat their fruit. 
15 I will plant Israel in their own land, 
never again to be uprooted 
from the land I have given them,” 
says the Lord your God.

Reflection: A Hint of Broken Curses
By John Tillman

We get beautiful pictures of God’s restoration in the same books that give us terrifying pictures of God’s judgment.

Amos’s first image was God roaring in anger. His final one is God kneeling in the dirt. The God who destroys wickedness replants and nurtures the righteous with his own hands.

God promises justice that distinguishes between the wicked and the righteous. He says, “None will escape” (Amos 9.1), but he also says, “I will not totally destroy.” (Amos 9.8) God used the picture of a sieve shaking grain at harvest. The grain, the good seed, will be preserved. The husks, chaff, and stones will be removed. This shaken yet saved grain will be lovingly replanted. The righteous will suffer along with the wicked yet be saved from total destruction and preserved for the future.

Amos says that God will replant Israel, but he also says that “all the nations” will be included under David’s restored “tent.” In Acts, James interprets this restored “tent” as the church itself. (Acts 15.13-19) This restoration was already happening in James’ day, yet is not yet complete in ours.

By this point, reading through the prophets, we have seen over and over the pattern of God’s people forsaking him, suffering judgment, returning to him, and being restored. It resembles a “Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer” pattern. Fall harvesters strip the fields. Winter’s plowmen turn under or sometimes burn the stubble. Spring planters sow new crops, and Summer yields an explosion of life.

Amos promises that there will be an end to this pattern. The plowman will come and find the harvest still occurring. The planter will come and find the fields overflowing with wine from good fruit still growing. The curse of the land (Genesis 3.17-19) will be removed. The land will no longer require the toil and sweat of laborers and will no longer produce thorns and thistles. The cultivation of faith and the enjoyment of the fruits of righteousness will continue, never again to be interrupted.

Our lived-out faith should be beautiful to behold—a peek at a better world. A hint at the breaking of a curse.

Let our lives show the evidence of the kingdom to come. May our hearts be transformed into repentant fields that never need plowing. May we produce everlasting harvests of bounty, ever-flowing springs of living water, and bottomless vats of wine of the new and joyous covenant.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; we bless you from the house of the Lord. — Psalm 118.26

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

​Today’s Readings
Amos 9 (Listen 3:08)
Psalm 73 (Listen 2:56)

Read more about The Curse Reversed
Even as he speaks the curse of Eden, God purposes and promises to break it. Scripture describes a God constantly working to reverse the curse

Read more about When God Shakes Our Foundation
When sin is revealed and an organization crumbles, it was God who struck the blow, not an enemy.

The End for Summer Fruit

Scripture Focus: Amos 8.2, 11
 2 “What do you see, Amos?” he asked.
“A basket of ripe fruit,” I answered.
Then the Lord said to me, “The time is ripe for my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.
11 “The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord,
     “when I will send a famine through the land—
 not a famine of food or a thirst for water,
     but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.

Reflection: The End for Summer Fruit
By Erin Newton

Summer approaches. The fruit has started to ripen. Nothing sounds more delightful than a basket of ripe fruit—ready to eat, refreshing and nourishing for the body. But the image in Amos is drastically upturned. As pleasing as the idea of fresh fruit sounds, God compares it to Israel—ready for judgment.

When God answers, he doesn’t say exactly, “the time is ripe.” The translators have done a good job here to try and reveal the play on words in the verse.  The Hebrew word for “summer fruit” is pronounced qayits. And the “ripe time” that God says is the word for “the end”—pronounced qets. It would be similar to us saying, “I see the berries over there!” To which God responds, “I see the buried over there.”

There is no more time left on the vine for the fruit and no more time left for the people in the land. It is a dire situation and the turning of an image that should bring joy (fruit gathered for eating) to a scene of hopelessness (people gathered for judgment).

The image of food is recalled with the proclamation that a famine is coming. The basket of fruit will be taken away—but in this message, it’s not really food he’s talking about. It will be a famine of divine communication. A lack of prophecy. A silence over the people.

Starvation is one of the harshest sufferings. It is slow and debilitating. The body attempts to scream out in every way possible, “Feed me!” When wars break out, starvation becomes a key humanitarian crisis. Efforts to prevent it often reach across political or ethnic borders. Throughout history, it has been a threat.

A famine of God’s words is meant to strike equal fear into the hearts of his people. They have lived through droughts and short-term famines. They have felt their bellies ache for food and have seen their neighbors recklessly desperate to get something, anything, to eat.

Without food, we die. Without the word from God, we also die. Spiritual starvation is equally slow and painful.

We are not accustomed to valuing divine communication like we value nourishment. But here in Amos the two are set side-by-side. Jesus preached the same message, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Are we serving ourselves a healthy portion of Scripture?

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
The Lord is near to those who call upon him, to all who call upon him faithfully. — Psalm 145.19

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

​Today’s Readings
Amos 8 (Listen 2:16)
Matthew 28 (Listen 2:39)

Read more about Better Things to be Doing
If we don’t value worshiping God, the punishment is a famine—not a famine of profit, or water, or food, but a famine of the Word of God.

Read more about God of the Weak and Doubtful
He accepts and encourages you today. You who doubt his presence with you. You who doubt that you are loveable