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?
Matias Reyes was a convicted murderer and rapist who converted to Christianity while in prison and confessed to other crimes for which he was never charged. Could God forgive and love him?
Manuel Noriega is a convicted international drug lord and the former dictator of Panama. In May of 1990 he was led to Christ by a prison chaplain. He completed a 16-week Bible training course. On October 24, 1992, he was baptized in prison. He was served the Lord’s Supper and allowed to give a brief testimony before he was returned to his maximum security cell. Here is part of that testimony:
“Before, Jesus to me was only an image of that which was learned from Catholicism, an historic being who worked miracles. All was transformed when on Tuesday, January the 16th, 1990, Dr. Clift asked me in a telephone conversation, he in Texas and I in a preventive prison of the court, “Do you know that Jesus loves you?”
“Today, this is what He means to me: He is the Son of God, who died on the cross for our sins, who arose from the grave and is at the right hand of God the Father and who above all things He is my Savior, and has mercy on me, a sinner.”
Who is Nineveh to you? Who hurt you the most deeply, or has stressed and distressed your spirit most recently? What person would you rather not love? Who would you rather not forgive? Where is the Nineveh you don’t want to visit?
Where are you with God?
God loves us when we run from him, as Jonah did in fleeing Nineveh. He loves us when we run to him, as Jonah did in the belly of the fish. He loves us when we run with him, as Jonah did in preaching to Nineveh. And he even loves us when we run behind him, as Jonah did in his anger over God’s forgiving love.
Which of these four tenses is yours today? Are you running from the will of God? Refusing to stop a sin or give your time and money, or take a step of faith? Are you running to God today in confession and contrition? Are you running with him in faithful obedience and service? Are you running behind him in bitterness and anger and resentment? Nothing we do changes the nature of God. And God is always love.
If you’re trying to earn his love, stop it. Stop coming to church so God will love you, and start coming to church because he loves you. Stop praying and reading the Bible and trying to be moral so God will bless you, and start praying and reading and obeying because he has blessed you. Stop serving him so that he will reward you, and start serving him because he has.
If you don’t believe he can really love you, change your mind today. If he could love Nineveh in their wickedness and sin, he has permission to love you. Either God keeps his promises or he doesn’t. Either the Bible is true or it is not. Either God wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4) or he doesn’t. Either he is faithful and just to forgive your sins and cleanse you from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9) or he isn’t. Either he is love or he is not.
Decide that the Bible is true and that God is faithful. Give him whatever most plagues your soul today, whatever sin or failure most grieves your heart. And know that God Almighty is Love Almighty for you.
If you don’t believe that God can love the unlovely through you, know that you’re wrong. Know that God can love your Ninevite even when you can’t. Ask his help. Ask for his forgiving grace and love. Step out by faith. And know that if you’re simply willing to share his love with people who need it most, you’ll never lack for opportunity. If you’re available to give God’s love away, you’ll always be used by your Father.
I was sitting in a deacons meeting on Sunday night at our church in Mansfield when a deranged-looking man bolted through the door and said, “Who’s the preacher?” Our deacons, being supportive and protective of their pastor, all pointed their fingers at me.
It turned out that this man had set out that night in his car to do one of two things. Either he was going to find a church which was still open and give his life to Jesus, or he was going to commit suicide. He saw the light in our window and that night trusted Jesus as his Lord. It was the easiest evangelistic experience of my life.
God loves everyone you know. And he wants to love them through you.
If you’re running from God, he loves you and is waiting for you to come back to him. If you’re running to God, he loves you and welcomes you with joy. If you’re running with God, he loves you and will use you to give his love to the world. If you’re running behind God, he loves you and wants to love the person you cannot, through you.
All because God Almighty is Love Almighty. His Son proved it to the world. And with his death he separated our sins from us as far as the East is from the West. This is the word and the promise of God.
The contemporary Christian group “Casting Crowns” has a song on the radio which has greatly impressed me in recent days. Listen to the lyrics:
Here I am Lord, and I’m drowning in your sea of forgetfulness.
The chains of yesterday surround me; I yearn for peace and rest.
I don’t want to end up where you found me,
And it echoes in my mind, keeps me awake tonight.
I know you cast my sin as far as the east is from the west
And I stand before you now as thought I’ve never sinned.
But today I feel like I’m just one mistake away from you leaving me this way.
I start the day and the war begins, endless reminding me of my sin.
And time and time again your truth is drowned out by the storm I’m in.
Today I feel like I’m just one mistake away from you leaving me this way.
I know you’ve washed me white, turned my darkness into light.
I need your peace to get me through, to get me through this night.
Can’t live by what I feel, but by the Truth your work reveals.
I’m not holding on to you, but you’re holding on to me.
You’re holding on to me.
Jesus, can you show me just how far the East is from the West
‘Cause I can’t bear to see the man I’ve been come rising up in me again.
In the arms of your mercy I find rest ’cause you know
Just how far the East is from the West
From one scarred hand to the other.