Have you ever been done wrong? Have you ever wanted the person who did you wrong to suffer? Have you ever wanted justice? Have you ever disagreed with someone so strongly that your disagreement turned to hatred? Have you ever tried to get as far away from God as possible?
If so, keep reading.
STRANGER IN A FOREIGN LAND
I’ve been traveling the past ten days. I spent the second half of my trip in Indiana. Apparently, if it’s your first time in the Hoosier State, you have to try the tenderloin sandwich – a local tradition.
Last Saturday, I was having lunch with a bunch of locals. This was the third time I had been told to get the tenderloin sandwich. Three different restaurants, three different sets of friends, three separate days. And all of them said the same thing, “Dude – you have to try the tenderloin sandwich.”
The server overheard our discussion, snarled up his face, and looked at me like I had two heads when he found out I had never had a tenderloin sandwich.
One of my friends begrudgingly piped up in a sort of disgusted tone, “He’s from Alabama” (and everyone at the table rolled their eyes).
“Ah,” the server said, still looking at me with judgmental eyes. It all seemed to make sense now.
You know Jonah, the prophet of God, the dude who spent a few days in the belly of a massive fish?
But what if this story isn’t about a dude and a big fish?
Rob Bell basically says it’s more about God’s unconditional love having the power to so profoundly transform me, empowering me to love others more fully – yes, even those who have wounded me; even the people with whom I disagree entirely.
Better than that, the redeeming love (the messy grace) of God allows me to accept and embrace myself.
EVEN IF I LAY DOWN IN HELL
Let’s recap the story: God tells Jonah to travel to Nineveh, a city known for its total disregard for the ways of God. Jonah is to convince the people to repent and turn back to God. Otherwise, they’re going to be destroyed.
But Jonah is bitter and angry and wants the people of Nineveh to get what they deserve: total annihilation. So, he ignores the call of God and boards a boat to get as far away from Nineveh as possible.
A storm comes up. The sailors and fishermen start freaking out. They draw straws to try and figure out who is the cause of the chaos. And the lot falls on Jonah.
The interrogation begins. The others on the boat ask Jonah who he is, where he is from, what family he belongs to, what does he do for a living, and why he is on the ship.
I read this story last week for the first time in a very long time, and I was struck by Jonah’s bizarre response to the sailors’ inquisition. In the midst of the ship rocking back and forth, plus the intense frustration of the others on the boat, Jonah gives them a response that seems entirely out of place, “I am a Hebrew.”
Who cares?! The boat is about to go under, and you’re telling me you’re a Jew?? Who cares?!
“You’ve never had a tenderloin sandwich?!”
“Oh, he’s from Alabama.”
“I’m a Hebrew.”
Are you tracking yet?
Yea. I wasn’t either.
Jonah’s response of, “I’m a Hebrew” doesn’t make sense to me until I Google “Jews and Jonah.”
During Jonah’s time, there was a commonly held belief that there were territorial gods or deities. There were also certain (more desolate) places, where there was not a local deity. The ocean was one of those “no man’s land” areas where no local deity reigned, and people believed they could do whatever they wanted.
So it makes sense that even Jonah, when running from God, would naturally board a boat. No man’s land. He thinks he can do as he pleases.
Until the storm hits.
Everything is coming apart at the seams, and Jonah seems lost in thought. The way I read this story, Jonah wasn’t even answering their questions directly. It’s like the realization was hitting him at the same time.
“I’m a Hebrew,” he thinks aloud.
In other words, my God has no boundaries.
I’m a Hebrew: my God isn’t limited by your territories.
Remember when Moses went to Pharoah, demanding the release of his people? He says, “The God of the Hebrews has sent us.”
In other words, the God who isn’t bound by your laws or prisons or punishment – the God that is above all your little territorial imps – that God demands you release His children immediately.
I’m a Hebrew.
The winds are beating the ship to a pulp. The waves are slamming against the wooden planks. Rain is pouring down, and thunder is shaking them at their core. Jonah tells the others to throw him overboard, into the sea. If they just throw him overboard, everything will calm down, and the sailors will be safe.
I wonder what Jonah really meant.
During the worst days of my life, in the two weeks leading up to my suicide attempt, I was begging someone to just throw me overboard. I felt like a burden to my family. I believed I had disappointed God. I thought no one would believe my story – or even care.
“Just throw me overboard!”
Jonah had to be pretty frustrated when the fishermen ignored his cries and started to row harder and faster, praying to their own local gods.
Because that didn’t fix anything.
Alas, they throw the Hebrew into the churning sea.
Can you imagine all the thoughts Jonah faces while in the belly of a fish?
“I’m not dead. I’m just sort of in this really smelly holding place. Why aren’t you killing me, God?! Just let me drown. I can’t see anything down here. This is my worst-case scenario.”
THE MOST HONEST PRAYER I’VE EVER PRAYED
Look back at Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the whale. It’s the desperate prayer of someone literally at the end of their rope.
Can you tell somebody what the end of the rope looks like? I’ve been there.
For me, it was being rolled down the hall from an ICU room, down to the elevator, to the belly of the hospital. I remember the sound of those giant metal doors latching shut behind me, as the orderly rolled me into the psych ward.
As the doors slammed shut, I prayed the most honest prayer I’ve ever prayed, “God? If you’re there, please help me.”
Whether you have a mental health diagnosis or not. We all know what it’s like to feel like we’re drowning.
Stressed to the max.
Wondering if God has finally given up on us.
At some point, most of us have probably run from what we know is our best self. Or some difficult conversation. We’ve all made poor decisions and not lived from our heart-center. We’ve faced the consequences and the fallout, and we’ve probably regretted it.
I’M A HEBREW
This isn’t a story about a big fish. It’s a story about mercy, grace, and forgiveness. Jonah couldn’t forgive those he viewed as “sinners” until he learned his own lesson about his need for mercy and grace.
This story is about Hope. It’s a story about redemption and restorative justice. It’s one about love – which is the most divine experience we can have.
Jonah must have thought he was really something special; better than everyone else. Jonah believed he had it all figured out. I’ve been there. I remember hating, or at least having no compassion, for those I viewed as a “sinner.”
It took Jonah reaching rock bottom before he could ever see his own need for mercy and forgiveness. The whole experience was about finding compassion for “the other,” and discovering that we are all “the other.”
It was the same way for me, after being released from the psych ward. Sitting with others at the lowest points of their lives gave me more love, compassion, and understanding than I’d ever found in a lifetime of trying to do all the right things.
It’s been six years since the lowest point of my life, but in the past few weeks, I’ve deeply struggled with inner-hatred. The Kavanaugh hearing, the confession of Dr. Ford, and Kavanaugh’s eventual confirmation to the Supreme Court of the United States disappointed me, triggered memories of my own abuse, felt like it diminished my own painful experience (plus countless others), and sent me into a tailspin of anger and hatred.
I lashed out on social media. I was boiling on the inside. And I was perfectly fine with God bulldozing Washington and starting over.
But I’m a Hebrew. As such, it’s my job to live my life in such a way that unboxes things like Divine Love and grace and hope. Compassion and mercy can’t be rationed out, only to those I deem worthy.
I’m a Hebrew. And it’s time I start recognizing the dignity of all humans, even when it isn’t easy. Initially, Jonah refused to preach to a group of people he hated. I’ve been there. And I was wrong.
There is no transgression so heinous and no wound so deep that Love cannot transform. And the only way the world will ever experience that kind of Love is if we allow it to flow through us into every interaction we have in-person & online.
We cannot live our lives full of hatred and expect anyone to believe we are children of God.
Whether it’s an entire city or just the stubborn heart of someone like Jonah, the Good news is this: Love is the antidote to fear. Love combats the illusion of separateness. Love is a reminder that everyone belongs, even when it seems like life is falling apart.
*Originally preached at Red Door Church (Bloomington, Indiana), October 7, 2018.
Steve Austin was a pastor when he nearly died by suicide. A second chance, a grueling recovery, and years of honest conversation allowed Steve to find healing and purpose. It’s evident in his writing, speaking, podcasting, and coaching: he helps overwhelmed people get their lives back.