Friday, 5 December 2014

The Scandal of Grace (Jonah 4)

In his book 'In the Grip of Grace' Max Lucado writes the following:
"Know what disturbs me most about Jeffery Dahmer?  What disturbs me most are not his acts, though they are disgusting.  Dahmer was convicted of seventeen murders.  Eleven corpses were found in his apartment.  He cut off arms.  He ate body parts.  My thesaurus has 204 synonyms for vile, but each falls short of describing a man who kept skulls in his refrigerator and hoarded a human heart.  He redefined the boundary for brutality.
The Milwaukee monster dangled from the lowest rung of human conduct and then dropped.  But that's not what troubles me most.  Can I tell you what troubles me most about Jeffery Dahmer?
Not his trial, as disturbing as it was, with all those pictures of him sitting serenely in court, face frozen, motionless.  No sign of remorse, no hint of regret.  Remember his steely eyes and impassive face?  But I don't speak of him because of his trial.  There is another reason.  Can I tell you what really troubles me about Jeffery Dahmer.  May I tell you what does?
His conversion.
Months before an inmate murdered him, Jeffery Dahmer became a Christian.  Said he repented.  Was sorry for what he did.  Profoundly sorry. Said he put his faith in Christ.  Was baptised.  Started life over.  Began reading Christian books and attending chapel.
Sins washed.  Soul cleansed.  Past forgiven.  That troubles me.  It shouldn't, but it does.  Grace for a cannibal?"

Max goes on to explain that his trouble in accepting Dahmer's conversion is inexcusable, because the same grace that saved Dahmer is the grace that saves any person who trusts in Christ.

Let's be clear, the moral distance that may exist between ourselves and Jeffery Dalmer is infinitely less than the moral distance that exists between ourselves and God.  He may have travelled a little further down the road of human corruption than we have, but we share the same essential guilt.  Our self-righteousness, respectability and pride may blind us to the reality, but we share the sinful nature that explains Dahmer's actions, like him we have resisted God's rule and done those things that he has expressly forbidden, and we have harboured perverse thoughts and murderous intentions.

What right does God have to forgive Jeffrey Dahmer?  What right had God to forgive Nineveh?  What right god forgive Jonah?  What right God forgive you?  Should he even care about sinful people like us?

1.  ‘How can God have compassion on those people?’ (1-3)

Shouldn’t people get what they deserve?  That’s what Jonah felt about Nineveh!  It was a notoriously wicked city that deserved God’s wrath. It was a city that was responsible for all sorts of atrocities.  As one preacher said, ‘Nineveh had been keeping undertakers in Israel busy for years.’  Yet God showed them mercy!  So Jonah complains, 'I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.  Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live' (2b-3).

What a hypocrite!  Jonah had run from God when God called him, he had gone in the opposite direction, fleeing the LORD in rebellion.  Jonah deserved the death penalty for his treason.  Yet Jonah did not get what his wickedness deserved.  Instead God was patient and compassionate towards him.  God persisted with him and rescued him from the Pit.

The LORD replies to Jonah, “Have you any right to be angry?"  God has shown us a kindness that we do not deserve, so how can we complain when he shows that same kindness to others?  Of course we delight when he shows his mercy to people we like but what right have we to complain when he shows that same mercy to those who may have wronged us.

There was a Christian woman in England whose husband treated her awfully.  Her husband was not a believer, they were married for some years and then he divorced her.  He behaved like a pig towards her, he trampled all over her.  But towards the end of his life he began to take an interest in spiritual reality.  Just before he died he became a Christian.  As far as it is possible to tell he seemed to have been genuinely converted.  And she found that really hard!  She wanted her husband to go to hell because of the way that he had treated her.  She knew that is what he deserved.  She wanted him to get what he deserved.  To her credit, over time, she did come to terms what God had done—but it was hard!

2.  Are we sinful or are we valuable?

Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city.  There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city.  Presumably he is hoping that the city will be destroyed—despite the fact that God said he was going to show compassion and relent from sending destruction on Nineveh.

God provides for Jonah—a vine to give him shade.  Jonah is very happy about this vine.  But God is going to use this vine to teach Jonah an object lesson.  He is going to use this vine to expose how wrong Jonah is in his attitude towards Nineveh.

'Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant.  But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered.  When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint.  He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live" (6-8). 

Jonah is concerned for a plant that he did not grow, but questions the right of God to show compassion towards a city full of people that he created.  Will Jonah not even allow God have compassion on that place for the sake of the animals.   “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow.  It sprang up overnight and died overnight.  And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” (10-11).

God explains that the the people of Nineveh did not know their left hand from their right.  That does not mean they were literally like infants unable to remember which hand was which.  Nor is this a suggestion that they were morally innocent—they have already confessed their guilt.  It means that they were morally and spiritually unaware and had not been told, until Jonah arrived, about the God could rescue them from their sin.

So, were the people of Nineveh wicked or valuable?  The answer, of course is both.  They were exceedingly wicked and immensely valuable to God.  They had offended his holiness, yet he had created them and loved them.  If Jonah could care about a plant he did not tend to, sure then it can't be morally wrong for God to care about people he created.  For people are worth more than plants.  This is so different than the world's message of self-esteem.  Every day our children are being encouraged to see the good within themselves, in order that they might realise their worth and love themselves.  The gospel allows us face the reality of the evil within us, with the realisation that our value, and God's love, is not dependant on our goodness.

3.  Does grace seem unfair to you?

The book of Jonah ends with an unanswered question.  Should God not pity Nineveh?  That was an exceedingly wicked city, but it was a valued part of his creation.  I want to finish with two thoughts that will put this question in perspective.

Firstly, you are more sinful than you realise.  It is hard for us, as sinful human beings, who have placed ourselves rather than God at the centre of the universe, to understand the depths of our own moral corruption.  We tend to view wickedness in terms of outward actions, but God views wickedness primarily in terms of our heart.  It is easy for us to judge those who have committed awful crimes, but he sees the same hatred and perversity within the recesses of our being.  We tend to view wickedness in terms of crimes committed against other people, but God judges wickedness in terms of resistance to him.  So the most devastating of all sins is to reject the offer of life in Christ.  Jesus explained to the people of Galilee, 'The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here' (Matthew 12:41).

Secondly, you are more loved than you have dreamed.  God created us and values us.  God is 'gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity'.  He made us and has the right to pity us.  In Christ we have seen the full extent of that love.  'Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends' (John 15:13).   'You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us' (Romans 5:6-8).  The cross reveals the justice of God's forgiveness; for God did not look at Nineveh's sin and say it did not matter, he looked at Nineveh's sin and said he would take the punishment for it himself in the person of his Son.  He is both just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26).

You are more wicked than you realised and more loved than you dreamed. All along Jonah failed to see the extent of his rebellion and that, like Nineveh, his only hope was the compassion and grace of God.  Should I not pity Nineveh?  Can he justify forgiving Jeffery Dalmer?  Can we be sure he is willing to forgive us?  He made us, we have offended him, it is his nature to have compassion, and he has dealt with sin so that he can forgive anyone who turn to him in repentance.  God is  gracious and compassionate, 'slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.'  

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