God’s man isn’t much like God
Jonah 4: Jonah was furious.
The heart of the book of Jonah isn’t the first part with the oft-repeated big fish story. Instead, it’s the last part. It’s here that we find the motor that drives the story. When the reluctant prophet gives in and goes to Nineveh he does so in fear, not that he’ll fail, but that he’ll succeed. Jonah is nationalistic to the core and he’d like nothing better than for the capital city of Israel’s enemy, Assyria, to be destroyed. Still, with all his failings, Jonah knows a thing or two about God. The priests and other religious leaders of his country may promote a doctrine of Israel having a corner on the Almighty, but Jonah understands that God has compassion on all people. Israel may be the chosen people but that means God wants to use them to bless all the nations on earth, not that God loves them and hates all others. When Jonah runs from God, refusing to go to Nineveh he does so because he understands these things. He understands them, but he doesn’t agree with them. Now that his mission to Nineveh is a success Jonah’s angry with the Lord, not only for sparing his enemies when they repent, but for using him to bring it to pass. In spite of his unique understanding of God, Jonah isn’t much like God at all.
Take Away: God is love.
The God of whatever happens
Jonah 3: God…did change his mind about them.
What an interesting statement! God intends to do one thing, but then, in response to what they do, he changes his mind and does something else. This view of God challenges our thinking about who he is and how he works in this world. The Lord’s willing to be influenced by what we say and do. Of course, in this case, this is what he wanted to have happen. Had God only wanted to destroy them we’d have no story of Jonah and the big fish. Instead, we’d have another Sodom and Gomorrah story about fire and brimstone wiping out a sinful city. The reluctant prophet is sent on this mission exactly because God wants their lives to change. This is a classic Old Testament prophet situation. The prophet says, “If you do this, God’s going to do that…if you do that, God’s going to do this.” The Lord’s message to Nineveh is that, because of their sin, destruction is coming. However, even though it’s unspoken, they’re also being given a choice. If sin is bringing destruction, repentance will bring life. When the people of Nineveh make the right choice God is happy to change his mind. This kind of thinking opens up all kinds of possibilities for us. When I pray, asking for God’s intervention in some matter, I’m not just going through a spiritual discipline. Rather, I’m actually being allowed to influence God! My standing in this world is much more than my traveling some predetermined path to some predetermined conclusion. I’m a partner with God who’s allowing me to work with him in changing the world. Here’s a view of a God who’s never at a loss; who always knows what he’ll do in response to what I do of my own free will. Such a view doesn’t make God less. Instead, it makes him more. He’s God whatever happens.
Take Away: As his people we’re partners with the Lord who allows us to work with him in changing the world.
The grace that goes before
Jonah 1: Get rid of me and you’ll get rid of the storm.
They make their living on the water but the sailors have never seen a storm like this. This storm, they fearfully conclude, has supernatural power. These sailors have no knowledge of God but when Jonah tells them that the God he serves is the Maker of the sea it scares them to death. Jonah bravely accepts his responsibility in all this and tells them to save themselves by throwing him overboard. These idol worshipping, superstitious, and desperate men won’t do it. One has to wonder why Jonah needs to be “thrown” at all. He can abandon ship with or without their help. However, I’ll leave that for another day, and focus in on these pagan sailors. Even though Jonah tells them that tossing him into the sea will save their lives, they row all the harder, trying to escape the storm. One of John Wesley’s doctrines is called “prevenient grace.” The “pre” part of the word is the clue to its meaning. It might be called “the grace that goes before.” That is, before I ever think of God he’s already working in my life. Human beings are created in God’s image and, even though that image is soiled and stained, it remains. It’s prevenient grace that enables a sinner to show God-like compassion on others. It’s prevenient grace that enables us to respond to God’s love as he offers us a relationship with himself. In this case, we see prevenient grace at work in the lives of these heathen sailors who risk their own lives in an attempt to save a person who confesses that their predicament is his fault.
Take Away: Before we ever think of the Lord he’s already working in our lives.
God, making himself vulnerable
Hosea 14: O Israel, come back! Return to your God!
In his amazing love God calls out to his wayward people. To return to him is to their benefit. Otherwise, it’ll take tough love to turn them around and even as these words are spoken a “tornado” of judgment is coming their way. That’s a message I’m used to seeing in the prophets. There’s another message here and even though it’s seen in other places, it’s especially clear in the book of Hosea. If these sinning people return to God it will be to their benefit, but it will also be to his. As Hosea’s love reached out to his unfaithful wife so does God’s love reach out to a sinning humanity. It seems impossible, but I, as insignificant as I am, have the ability to both hurt and please the Maker of the universe. The reason for that is that he loves me with a love I cannot fully understand. God has allowed himself to be vulnerable in opening his heart to me and to all humanity. Today, the person who’s rejected God; who’s lived as an enemy of his; who, in my opinion, is practically beyond redemption, remains within the reach of God’s love. The Lord won’t force you to return but he reaches out to you in love even through the words of this little-read devotional.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
A love that never gives up
Hosea 2: Then I’ll marry you for good – forever!
The book of Hosea is a book of extremes. There’s nothing mundane or middle of the road here as everything is at one end or the other end of the spectrum. Here we see powerful love and painful betrayal. We see the beauty of tender, marital sex and we also see the brutal, cheapening side of sex in the market place. In one place we see the anger of God as he declares the coming destruction as a result of their sin but we also see God’s mercy as he promises restoration. There’s nothing in Hosea that lends itself to a relaxing late night read before sleep. This book is an emotional rollercoaster. God’s people have betrayed him and, because of that betrayal he’s rejected them, kicking them out. Israel has committed spiritual adultery against God and God has issued a decree of divorce against them. Then as we’re emotionally ready to close the book on this relationship the tone of the Lord changes. He’s kicked them out and declared his anger with them and judgment on them. Just as I get my mind around that the landscape suddenly changes. The Lord declares his intentions to clean them up, to romance them again and ultimately to reinstate his marriage to them. The sweep of all this is stunning and I realize I’m reading about a love that never gives up. God is truly the God of Second Chances.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
These preacher’s kids had it hard
Hosea 2: Rename your brothers “God’s Somebody.”
I’m not a preacher’s kid, but I raised one! Hopefully, my son doesn’t feel that growing up in a parsonage was all that bad. However, I’ve heard some horror stories from “PK’s.” I’ve concluded that while some of those stories are true, some are simply basic “growing up” stories that could be applied to just about any family. However, Hosea’s kids have some no-questions-asked horror stories. For one thing, their dad gives them strange names intended to preach a sermon. Two of the three, in particular, get terrible names: a daughter named “No-Mercy” and a son who gets the awful name of “Nobody.” I bet those kids needed therapy! Every time the girl is called it’s to be a sermon warning that unless the nation repents God will show them “no mercy.” When the boy is named it’s intended to declare that this “chosen people” is on the verge of being kicked out and becoming “nobody” in the sight of God. There’s a ray of sunshine near the end of the first chapter and continuing into the second. As a person might look across the hot and deadly desert to the distant cool mountains, Hosea looks down the road to a day of restoration. One thing he sees is a day for new names. When the discipline of God has done its work, children, and the whole nation, will be worthy of new names like “God’s Somebody” and “All Mercy.”
Take Away: I’m glad I live on the “all mercy” side of this story.
Daniel 9: All we have to show for our lives is guilt and shame.
As we well know, Daniel is a praying man. Honestly, when I first read of Daniel’s opening his window toward Jerusalem for prayer three times a day I had the impression he had some sort of reverent ritual of prayer. I have nothing against praying the prayers of other people or of repeating prayers that are meaningful to us and I had the feeling that Daniel prayed like that. Now, as I arrive in chapter nine I have the actual text of one of Daniel’s prayers. It’s anything but a ritual of prayer! Here’s a man pouring out his heart to God. Daniel has had a disturbing vision, he’s been reading Jeremiah’s troubling prophecies, and, as he considers these things his heart is broken. I note that Daniel doesn’t pray about “their” sins when thinking of the sins of his people. He sees a nation drowning in sin and, without joining them in their rebellion, jumps right into the pool with them. In other words, Daniel doesn’t piously hover above all the sinners calling them to repent. Rather, he becomes one of them and then begins to plead with God for forgiveness and restoration. His humbleness in identifying with lost people is a powerful picture of intercessory prayer. Also, there’s zero self-justification here. Daniel doesn’t try to explain to the Lord that there’s a righteous remnant left or that he, himself, has never wavered. Instead, he grieves “our sins,” confesses that God is right in judging those sins, and pleads for mercy and forgiveness. I need this lesson because I live in a sinful nation that seems intent on seeing how angry it can make God. At the same time, there are millions who have been swept along by this flow, not so much in rebellion against God as in confusion and ignorance. Like Daniel of old, I pray, “Lord save us. We are sinners living apart from you, lost and without hope. Have mercy on us, not because we deserve it but because you are the God of mercy.”
Take Away: Jesus taught his followers to pray for forgiveness for “our trespasses” – not “their trespasses.”
Daniel 4: He knows how to turn a proud person into a humble man or woman.
In his mercy the Lord deals with Nebuchadnezzar in a direct and attention getting way. Here’s a man driven by arrogance and drunk with power. The Lord strips all that away from him and sends him out into the wilderness for seven years. That sounds like a long time, but its short compared to the 40 years it takes the Israelites to learn a similar lesson. We don’t know what’s happening inside of Nebuchadnezzar during those long years of insanity, but somehow God is dealing with him and the end result is filled with redemption. In fact, one of the strongest examples of this is the fact that Nebuchadnezzar is allowed to write his own testimony, found here. His words are filled with humble praise and thanksgiving to God. This is a case of strong discipline yielding desirable results. Nebuchadnezzar is made into a new man by the grace of God. Know what? That’s just the kind of stuff God does. The focus here shouldn’t be on seven years of mental illness. The central issue here is that God takes messed up lives and makes them new. The “grass diet” was just the method. The made-new life is the result. Nebuchadnezzar isn’t complaining about the diet, but he certainly thanks the Lord for what he did for him.
Take Away: The Lord takes messed up lives and makes them new.
Them bones, them bones, them dry bones
Ezekiel 37: Dry bones, listen to the message of God.
Ezekiel speaks to people who think they’ve gone too far and have said “no” to God and just plain messed up once too often. They think they’re like dinosaur bones some archeologist might dig up in the desert someday: interesting, but dry and lifeless. The truth is that they’re right. They’ve been written off because of their rejection of God. To picture themselves as “dry bones” is not an overreaction. Rather, it’s a valid realization. Their only hope is the only hope they’ve ever had: they must turn back to God. In his vision Ezekiel is asked, “Can these bones live?” His answer is right on: “Lord, you know.” The restoration of Israel is up to the Lord. They’re on the verge of being written off of the pages of history. The only possibility of their not becoming dry fossils is to respond to the mercy of God and depend on him to breathe life back into them. All of that is true of my life too. It’s only when I accept two facts that I have hope. Fact one: my sins have made me spiritually into a pile of dry bones. Fact two: my only hope is in God’s mercy and forgiveness. The only route out of this mess is for me to accept the title, “dry bones” and then listen to God’s message. That alone can change my dry bones situation.
Take Away: Our only hope is in the mercy and forgiveness of the Lord.