So last night I finished up preaching through the book of Acts after 2 years of living in it. On some levels I’m grateful to take a break from Acts. It’s hard to have an office job when you are reading about your predecessors always moving and risking everything. But on a lot of levels I’m going to miss it. I have grown a lot in Acts for the past few years. It’s made me want to write a book about the subject, but more importantly, it’s made me want to be more like those earlier Christians.
And here’s a great example of why.
One of the most bizarre stories in the Bible is of a guy named Jonah. And there’s a reason that most parents don’t name their sons after Jonah, even though he’s got one of the best stories in all the Scriptures. It’s because Jonah actually is a bit of a jerk. But the beauty of his story is that he’s the guy who actually does the stuff that is inside all of us that we like to pretend isn’t there.
He’s the guy at the party who actually says the awful stuff the rest of us are thinking. And while it’s easy to villianize Jonah, the truth is he’s probably the character we have the most in common with in the entire Old Testament.
When we first hear about Jonah, he’s running away from God. Actually he’s running away from Nineveh, and if you lived back then you might understand why. Nineveh was were “they” lived. Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh because he has this idea that Israel is God’s chosen people (which was true), but his idea of why God has chosen them is so small, so myopic, that he can’t see that this is precisely the reason that God chose them in the first place.
Unlike Abraham, who wrestled with God, trying to prevent him from judging the cities of Sodom and Gommorah, Jonah wants God to do it. He knows how flexible God was on his whole fire from Heaven thing. And he wants no part of saving Nineveh.
And so Jonah runs to Tarshish. Thousands of years before Jesus’ tells his followers to love their enemies, God tells Jonah the same thing, and his response was to run. But not for long. Because Jonah is about to do his best impression of Pinocchio’s dad.
You know this story, there’s a storm, some sailors and Jonah has the strangest weekend ever vacationing in the belly of a whale. And one of my favorite verses in the entire book is in Jonah 2:1
“From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD his God.”
I bet he did.
The way the 27th chapter of Acts begins to wrap up is by telling us that Paul is still trying to get to Rome, and now he’s on a ship…again. After 3 shipwrecks you might expect him to be the John Madden of the New Testament, but he’s not. He’s on a ship one more time, and once more it wrecks. But pay attention to the way Luke is telling the story. Because he is telling this story in a way to send out echoes of another story, one about Jonah.
Luke tells us repeatedly that Paul is from Tarsus. But did you know it wasn’t always called Tarsus? Josephus, a historian from the first century, called it Tarshish. Which means that Paul is from the very place that Jonah was trying to run to.
This time, the prophet of God isn’t backing away from his calling but embracing it. He’s going to Rome to preach to his enemies. He’s about to go talk to Nero, the very man who’s judgment means life or death, and tell him Jesus is Lord.
He is in other words the reverse Jonah.
What we read in Paul’s transformation in Acts is what God’s dream is for all of His people. The gospel isn’t complete with just us. It insists that it carries over into how we view, relate and care about others.
So after church this last Sunday, a lady came up to me to share a story with me. She had heard Rick talk about the story of Jonah, and was convicted that there she had done the same thing with someone in her life. She had an acquaintance that she felt had made some poor lifestyle choices and had intentionally rubbed those decisions in her face. And as a result she had treated her less than kind.
And she sensed that God wanted her to go to this ladies work, which was at a bar.
Now let me back up and tell you, this woman is pretty straight-laced. Her prodigal moment might look something like staying up past midnight. She’d never been to a bar before and didn’t know the protocol for being in one. She had to call her more “pagan” friends to ask if there was a cover charge or dress code.
But she went anyway.
And when she found her acquaintance, she went straight up to her, and told her what she came to say. That God wanted her to know that He loved her, and that she was sorry for ever communicating anything but that. And while the other woman was still speechless, an enemy became a friend.
François Fénelon once said that “All wars are civil wars, because all men are brothers.” And I think he’s on to something. Since the fall on the overwhelming impulse that we all have it to write other people off for some reason or another. To dehumanize and villianize them as somehow less than “us”. But Acts just won’t let us do this. From the second chapter on, one of the central messages of Acts is that no one is beyond the embrace of God.
Which means that for all of us Jonah’s, it’s time to turn around.