Saturday, November 14, 2020

Mining the Minors: Jonah (8)

The choice between my way and God’s way is always before us, isn’t it?

And yet, for many reasons, God’s way may hold little appeal. It didn’t appeal to Cain, so he slew his own brother rather than take it. God’s way surely didn’t appeal to Abraham when instructed to offer his own son as a sacrifice at Moriah — how could it possibly? And yet Abraham’s faith enabled him to see past the strange command he had received to the character of the God who gave it, and to trust him to remain who Abraham had always known him to be.

One man chose his own way over God’s, though God had hardly made it difficult for Cain to obtain his favor: “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” The other chose God’s way over his own preference, despite the fact that pleasing God at first appeared to come at unprecedented cost. The difference was faith in the character of God: Abraham had it; Cain didn’t.

If you haven’t yet encountered this sort of choice yet as a Christian, be sure you will. It is in making such choices and living with their consequences that we come to really know God. And that, I think, is the real aim of the exercise.

Back in the first chapter of our study in Jonah, the mariners are looking for a way of salvation from the tempest that threatens their lives. God is about to present one, but it will not necessarily appeal to them at all.

Jonah 1:11-16 — Making Choices
“Then they said to him, ‘What shall we do to you that the sea may quiet down for us?’ For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. He said to them, ‘Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.’ Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. Therefore they called out to the Lord, ‘O Lord, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.’ So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.”
What Shall We Do?

These mariners are pagans and polytheists, superstitious to the core. The concept of placating the gods with sacrifices is one with which they are quite familiar, so now that the man who has put them in this awful predicament has been identified and admits his guilt, their first instinct is to do something harmful to him in order to turn the anger of his God away from them and their foundering ship. If this reaction seems a little foreign to modern sensibilities, it is nonetheless quite logical in its time, place and cultural setting. So they ask, “What shall we do to you?”

Upon receiving Jonah’s answer, the mariners are between a rock and a hard place. On the one side, their instinct is to offer the necessary sacrifice to Jonah’s God; on the other, there is the moral hazard of committing murder to save their own skins. Jonah has told them what needs to be done, but they understandably delay the inevitable.

An Obvious Question

An obvious question arises here: Why doesn’t God simply instruct Jonah to jump overboard? That would resolve the moral dilemma of the mariners in short order.

But that will not do. The Lord is not merely interested in the fate of Jonah or even the Ninevites to which Jonah has been sent. From Genesis to Revelation, our Bibles present him to us as a relational God, not merely a distant and powerful deity concerned primarily with commands and consequences. Our God cares about the spiritual condition of pagans as well as prophets, and is making Jonah a testimony to them against his own inclinations in order to draw these men into a encounter with the God of Israel.

So God forces the mariners to get involved in his unfolding drama. They must make a decision, take a risk and learn something about Jonah’s God in the process. However, like so many people under conviction, the mariners are determined to see if there is any other option open to them than the one with which they have been presented. God’s plan for their salvation seems undesirable, so they first try to save themselves.

Decision Time

Finally, the mariners come to the place where they realize they are out of options. It looks like it is either God’s plan of salvation for them, or else they must perish. So they begin to pray. They acknowledge that God is in charge (“You, O Lord, have done as it pleased you”), and beg to be excused from the penalty that would normally fall to murderers, since they are acting under God’s orders and very much against their own inclinations. So Jonah is thrown overboard, and the sea immediately and miraculously ceases its raging. As always, faith is rewarded, even when it appears most fearfully and tentatively.

Did their faith result in permanent changes to hearts and lives? We cannot say with any certainty, as this is the last we see of the mariners in our story. But the early indications are certainly good: they “feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows”.

The God of Israel had made an impression on these foreigners and, as he so often does, had made unexpected good come out of his servants’ bad choices. We should hardly be surprised to find him doing similar things in our own lives.

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