Love in Four Tenses
James C. Denison, Ph.D.
Barry Bonds hit his 756th home run on August 7 of this year, surpassing Hank Aaron as the all-time home run hitter. The ball will soon land in the Baseball Hall of Fame. We learned this week that when the ball arrives, it will be branded with an asterisk. Marc Ecko, the fashion designer who bought the baseball for $752,467, asked fans to decide how he should treat the memento.
After 10 million online votes, an asterisk was the winner, reminding us of the steroids controversy which has surrounded Bonds for years. The Hall has agreed to accept the asterisked ball.
I don’t know what I think about Barry Bonds, but I do know what I think about myself. If every sermon I preached had to come from a sinless person, they’d all be asterisked. So would everything you’ll do this week, I would imagine. But God Almighty doesn’t use asterisks in his Lamb’s Book of Life. He forgives all we confess and forgets all he forgives. He buries our sins in the depths of the deepest seas and separates them from us as far as the East is from the West. That’s how much he loves us.
Today we’ll learn that the awesome, fearsome, holy God of the universe, the God who wants an intimate relationship with each of us, is the God of love. He is love all the time, whether we deserve his love or not. Whether our circumstances reflect his love or not. Whether we feel his love or not. This morning we’ll learn why that fact is the best gift you can receive today. And the best gift you can give tomorrow.
Who was Jonah?
Jonah was God’s prophet, his preacher, in the eighth century before Christ. He had earlier predicted that King Jeroboam of Israel would restore the nation’s borders and bring relative peace to the country (2 Kings 14:23-25). His was apparently a successful and faithful ministry. Until, that is, he was called to go to Nineveh (Jonah 1:1-2).
Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the most wicked nation on earth. They were a conqueror nation, the Nazi Germany of their day, employing al-Qaeda-like terrorist tactics wherever they went. They would literally peel the skin from their victims and use it to paper their walls. And the nation they hated worst on earth was Israel.
You see, they wanted to control Egypt, the other superpower of the day. But Israel was in the middle, and Israel wouldn’t cooperate. So the Assyrians hated the Jews. One day, 30 or so years after Jonah, they would come and destroy Israel, the ten northern tribes. They would make them “the ten lost tribes of Israel.”
No Jew would go to Nineveh any more than one would have wanted to preach in Hitler’s Berlin or an American preacher would be happy with a call from God to preach to the Taliban.
But that’s not why Jonah didn’t want to go there, as we’ll see in a moment. He wasn’t afraid of Nineveh. He had preached God’s word faithfully before a corrupt king in Israel. He would soon sacrifice himself in the storm to save the sailors. When God finally brought him to Nineveh he did not hesitate to preach to them. He didn’t flee Nineveh out of fear, as we’ll learn shortly. But he did flee Nineveh.
In fact, Jonah “ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish” (Jonah 1:3). Nineveh was directly to the east from Israel; Tarshish was directly to the west. In fact, since it was located in southwestern Spain, the city was as far west as their known world extended. In those pre-Columbus days, this was as far from Nineveh as a man could get. So Jonah went to Joppa, a Jewish port city on the Mediterranean coast, boarded a ship, and ran from God.
But that never works. When you run from God you run into him. That’s what happened to Jonah. God “threw” a storm at him (v. 4 in the literal Hebrew). The sailors threw their cargo back to lighten the ship and make a sacrifice to the god of the weather. But it didn’t work. So at his request they threw Jonah overboard, and turned their hearts to God (v. 16).
Then the same God who made the storm to catch Jonah made a “great fish” to save him. After the fish brought Jonah to Nineveh, he didn’t try to run again, for obvious reasons. Instead, he began doing what God told him to do: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (Jonah 3:4).
With this shocking outcome: “The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth” (v. 5). Even the king joined them, and required the nation to join him. This would be like Hitler converting to Judaism and requiring the entire German nation to join him. And “when God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened” (v. 10).
Who is your Nineveh?
But Jonah wasn’t happy: “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2).
That’s why he didn’t want to go to Nineveh–not because he was afraid the Ninevites would reject his message, but because he was afraid they wouldn’t. He was afraid that they would repent and then God would forgive them. He was afraid that the Lord would love the mortal enemies of his people. And then he’d have to love them as well. And this Jonah would not do.
Do you remember Jeffrey Dahmer, the man who was convicted of torturing, murdering and then cannibalizing his victims, some of them children? A Church of Christ minister named Roy Ratcliff said that he baptized Dahmer in the penitentiary whirlpool in May of 1994, shortly before he was killed by other inmates. Does the idea that God could forgive Jeffrey Dahmer and bring him to heaven bother you?