Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Other Big Fish Story

The Old Testament book of Jonah is of interest for several reasons.  The story of Jonah and the whale is a popular Sunday School story.  It is the story of a reluctant missionary who has to get straightened out by God.  It is also a story that has messianic overtones, as Jesus’ time in the grave is compared to Jonah’s time in the whale.  But there is one element, often overlooked, in the story of Jonah that is important for us living in the twenty-first century.
            Jonah’s preaching was successful and the people living in the Assyrian capital of Nineveh repented.  As a result the city was spared, much to Jonah’s consternation.  But as Jeremiah and Nahum point out in their prophecies one hundred plus years later, Assyria was to be judged for their evil ways.  Approximately one hundred fifty years after Jonah, Nineveh was destroyed. 
            Some scholars believe that Jonah came to Nineveh shortly after there had been three events the people would have considered as omens of impending divine wrath.  Within a six year span Nineveh had experienced two major plagues and a total eclipse of the sun.  When Jonah appeared, they were willing to listen to his message and repent.
How long their repentance lasted is uncertain.  The prophecy of Nahum, one hundred years later, pictures Nineveh as being exceedingly morally corrupt and wicked.  He calls it a contemptible, bloody city full of lies and pillage.
There are two lessons to be learned from Nineveh’s demise: Their conversion and repentance appear to be only skin deep.  From Jeremiah and Nahum it appears the city returned to its evil ways.  They may have changed their ways for a time, but their repentant lifestyle had little impact on future generations.  Within one hundred years they were the same or worse than they had been in Jonah’s day.
Much is spoken today of a need in our country to return to biblical principles.  But just as with Nineveh, a return, without full-scale repentance, will have no lasting effect.  It will merely put salve on the moral iniquity of our times.  We will get through the immediate crisis only to fall back into the same old patterns of behavior.
Before we judge America or the Ninevites too quickly, it is wise to look at ourselves.  What attitude do we take towards the sin in our lives?  What is the character of our repentance?  Are we doing any better than they did in inculcating the faith into our children?  Do they see us actively living out the faith we claim to follow?
How easy is it for us, like the Ninevites, to repent when things are rough, and go back to normal once the crisis has been resolved.  It happened time and again in the book of Judges.  We see it today in accounts of battered spouses, where the abuser repents of his or her abuse, only to repeat the abuse shortly after being forgiven.  It occurs in the vows we make: “God, I will do such and such if You will only get me through this crisis”, only to soon forget we ever said them.  In effect, each is a lie spoken only to get us out of trouble, quickly forgotten when things settle down.  When we do so, we are effectively standing up and lying to the face of the Creator of the universe.  We can not get away with it anymore than Nineveh did.  What characterizes our relationship with God?  Do our children see us as godly men and women, and desire to follow our faith walk?

The Sounds of Silence

Over the past few weeks, following the Benghazi attack, there has been much in the media, the veracity of which is suspect, of a u-tube video as the cause of the outbreak of violence.  Whether or not that video was the sparkplug, the mere fact that it has been accused as being the cause points to the seriousness with which Muslims consider an affront to Allah.  We can ask ourselves why Christians do not take similar action as our faith is bombarded almost on a daily basis by the media and the Hollywood elite.  For the most part, we remain strangely silent.
There may be several reasons for this, some of which point to our having a weakened faith; others to having a robust and active faith.  Some will remain silent because they do not want to get involved.  They could really care less about what others say about God as long as they are, for the most part, left alone.  After all, just because they attend church, it doesn’t mean that they are much different than their non Christian neighbors.  They don’t want to be identified with those reactionary “Christian” nuts, and so remain silent.
Others don’t see God as active in today’s world.  To them, he is more of a feeble retired grandfather who never-the-less cares for them as a loving grandfather does his grandchildren.  Since God is no longer active, it’s best to not make waves, keeping quiet.  After all, if they get into trouble for speaking out He won’t be able to help them.
The third group takes a strong stand regarding the ranting against Christianity.  Unfortunately, at times they can be as obnoxious as their opponents.  Just like the Muslim radicals, they regard anything spoken against God as heresy.  It almost seems that they must come to the defense of God, only not quite as violently as the Muslim radicals often do.  Like the preceding group, they don’t really believe that God is very active in the world today and needs their help.  The famous debate held in Ann Arbor, Michigan during the 1960s between the death of God theologian Thomas Altizer and John Warwick Montgomery is a case in point.  Montgomery, treating Altizer as a heretic, totally destroyed him in the debate. But the sympathy of the crowd was with Altizer.  There was no love shown.
A fourth group sees God as very active in today’s world.  He doesn’t need our participation to defend Himself.  Since He is fully capable of defending Himself, they remain silent.  Those holding this view would do well to remember the words of the prophet Jeremiah when he decided to stop speaking the Word of the Lord because of all the trouble it brought him.  He concluded that he had to speak up because not to do so was like having a fire gnawing at his bones, thus he had to speak out, and did so.
The final group speaks up out of the conviction of a sincere and robust faith.  Like the fourth group, they have a strong faith that God is in control of history, guiding it to His ends. But how they speak up is vital.  Their speech is seasoned with love.  The more they are ridiculed, the more love they show.  They exemplify the song “They will know we are Christians by our Love
As we look at our own lives, we likely find ourselves emulating one of these positions.  We can be silent, speak out rudely, or speak out in the context of demonstrating God’s love to those against us.  Which will it be?