Jonah, chapter 1 – “No Place to Hide”
We human creatures are very good at hiding. It seems to come naturally to us. That very first man and woman, Genesis tells us, when they realized that had sinned against God… well, they tried to hide from God; to run away from the face of the Lord.
Hiding is a game for us. One of the very first games we play with infants is “peek-a-boo.” Initially, an infant is startled at mom’s or dad’s sudden reappearance. But, as they develop object permanence, they anticipate with delight that moment when hands slip away and mom or dad suddenly is found. As children, we play hide-and-go-seek, creating an inward tension. Part of us wants to be found to validate our importance to our peer group; while another part of us wants to remain hidden, outsmarting our peers. We hide – to outsmart, to deceive, to pretend.
Long after we outgrow physical hiding, we adults grow adept at hiding our feelings. We hide them from one another and stuff them down. We’re to meet a friend for coffee or lunch. Something in their life has changed; they don’t seem to have time for us anymore. And now, as we sit at the coffee shop, our phone pings and we read their text: “Sorry. Something’s come up. Can we reschedule?” And we text back: “It’s OK. It’s not a problem.” But it’s not OK and we hide what we really want to say: “You’ve let me down and hurt my feelings. I wonder if our friendship matters to you anymore.” We try to hide our anger… after all; anger is a sin, right? We try to hide our frustration… after all; isn’t patience a “fruit of the spirit?”
And then, just like that first man and woman, we try even to hide from God. Throughout scripture, God’s “face” is idiomatic for God’s presence… a presence that is unavoidable and more intimate than we can sometimes bear. Yet few in scripture better capture the human instinct to hide than the prophet Jonah. Called by God to go to the great city of Nineveh, he runs as far and as fast as he can in the opposite direction. He flees from the face of God. He gets on a boat and goes down into the bowels of the ship to hide… as if there were anywhere he could truly go to escape the presence of God. But he can’t escape. None of us ever really can. It is as the Psalmist writes: Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your face… For it was you who… knit me together in my mother’s womb. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” Friends, we cannot flee from God’s presence. We cannot escape the gaze of God’s face. And there are no games we can play, no cosmic peek-a-boo that will hide our actions, our words, or even our thoughts from the God who knit us together. We have nowhere to hide.
The assignment Jonah received was a hard one. Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria. It was a very impressive city, a “great city”… so long as “great” means large and powerful; for Nineveh, most certainly, was not great in the sense of being honorable or benevolent. No; the Assyrians were the nation that descended with a vengeance upon Israel around 722 BCE. Their leader, Sargon, had a brilliant strategy to insure that Israel would never rise again. He deported and dispersed the Israelites throughout the Mesopotamian region and he brought other nationalities within Israel’s borders. Ten tribes were lost forever… And all thanks to Assyria, whose capital, Nineveh, stood as the symbol of her rapacious power. And it was to those very people Jonah was told by God to “Arise and go at once…” “Arise, go at once… to the people who have destroyed you… who have taken from you what can never be recovered.”
You know, friends, sometimes people tell me they don’t like to read the Old Testament because it reveals a God of vengeance, not grace. But if the story of Jonah doesn’t stand as a testimony to God’s grace, I can’t imagine what would. It was Methodist founder John Wesley who wrote long ago: “Nothing is more repugnant to capable, reasonable people than grace.”
Grace is an awesome idea when the one being forgiven is me. But grace is a horrible idea if it means that someone who has brought harm and suffering to me and mine could get off scot free, facing no personal penalty for the horrible pain they’ve caused. Nothing is more repugnant than a grace bestowed on those who have wounded us, hurt us deeply. It is all we can bear to be told that God loves them. But when God tags us as the bearers of that message… Well, we want to run in the opposite direction as far and as fast as we can.
And so this morning, the story of Jonah ought to challenge us to look deep inside and consider, “Is there someone to whom we begrudge God’s grace?” Let’s be honest with God and ourselves. There might be days that go by without us even thinking of that person. But then, something happens to remind us and we think back to the pain that person caused us or the loss they brought to us, and we feel that tightness in our stomach or our jaw; although we try to tell ourselves and God that “It’s OK. It’s not a problem.” But it is a problem and it’s not OK.
Maybe it’s the “ex” we tell ourselves we’ve forgiven. But then we go to that holiday family gathering. Our siblings all have their children with them. But ours is with the ex. And we feel that resentment well up inside us. Or maybe it’s that boss who mismanaged everything. His flippant, irresponsible choices meant the company had to downsize. And now you’re out of work and it’s meant all kinds of sacrifices for you and your family. Or maybe it’s a co-worker from long ago. You considered her your teammate until you discovered that, to the boss’s face she missed no opportunity to throw you under the bus. And now, years later, she’s the VP and you’re still in the same position you started in. Or maybe it’s that friend whose kid introduced yours to drugs and it’s been a horrible never-ending roller coaster of addictions ever since. Or maybe it’s that neighbor who was far more neighborly than appropriate with your spouse. Or maybe it was that drunk driver who T-boned your car and your back has never felt the same. The list could go on and on. You know God’s love and grace are for everyone. But it is hard, so hard. And sometimes it’s hard to look God in the face; to come into his presence when that resentment and anger is still rumbling down deep in our souls. You’ve tried stuffing it down and it works for a while. But every now and then, it gets the better of you.
So maybe today is a good day to admit to yourself that you can’t pretend anymore; that trying to hide from your own emotions is about as logical as thinking peek-a-boo really makes someone disappear. Maybe today is a good day to ask God to help you get real with him and with yourself… and perhaps, if it would be appropriate, with that other person. We are called, my friends, to be vessels for God’s grace to overflow into the lives of others. But if anger and resentment is sloshing around in our hearts, then that’s what’s going to spill out on others. God wants to flood our hearts with his grace so that grace will slosh around and spill out wherever we go. God wants to flood our hearts with grace. And so today is as good a day as any to ask God to soften your heart and to help you accept that his grace is not just for everyone in the general, generic sense; but that it is for that person who wounded you and wronged you in the most specific, personal sense.
Years back, 48 Hours aired a story about a Vietnam veteran named Paul Reed. After the war, Reed returned to America filled with anger, resentment and prejudice. For decades, he could not hold down a job or make a marriage work. When the Persian Gulf War erupted, he really came unglued. With the encouragement of his mother, he decided to seek help. His anger and resentment were destroying him from the inside out.
During the war, Reed had confiscated some trophies – photos, stamps and even a diary. Now, as part of his personal recovery, he decided to have the diary translated. One entry read:
"Forget about everything. Calm yourself. Listen to the world speak. Love bears no grudge."
Reed could hardly believe what he was reading. He realized the truth of his enemy’s humanity – that they had shared the same thoughts and feelings. The writer of the diary was named Nguyen Nghia and Reed now believed that the only way to find healing in his own life was to return the diary to that soldier’s family. So, Reed took a second step: instead of moving further and further away from the Vietnamese people, he now decided to move toward them.
And, in taking that step, he made the most startling discovery of all: Nguyen Nghia was still alive. This man whom Reed assumed he’d slaughtered on the battlefield was still alive and wanted very much to meet him. So, Paul Reed traveled back to Vietnam in hopes of receiving forgiveness from a former enemy and making peace with himself.
It was through his relationship with Nghia that Reed experienced inward transformation. Nghia invited Reed into his home to meet his wife and four children. One by one Reed presented to him the items he had confiscated during the war. Last of all, he brought out his diary. The man began to weep. But, Reed noticed that he seemed to be having trouble reading it. When he asked he was told by the translator that Nghia’s eyes had been wounded in their battle. It was the last battle he had fought in. Afterwards, he was taken to an underground hospital to recover. He then walked the 500 miles to return home to his village. The journey took him two years. Reed asked Nguyen if he still hated him and the man responded “let the past be the past.” Each forgave the other and Reed stated that his enemy had become his best teacher and his friend.
But Reed’s journey still was not complete. He had been blinded to the humanity of the Vietnamese people. But, in meeting Nghia, he had come to see and desired to help him see, as well. He elicited support from fellow-veterans and 3 years later returned to Vietnam to bring Nghia back to America for medical care. The damage to one eye could not be corrected. But, his right eye could be helped by corrective lenses. Nghia put on the glasses and, immediately, he was able to read.
The grace of God, my friends, is not just for everyone in the general, generic sense; but it is for those who wound us and wrong us in the most specific, personal sense. The grace of God is for them and the grace of God is for us.
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