Jonah (Part 1)


“Now the LORD had appointed a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the fish three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17, NIV).

Many of us are familiar with the Old Testament story of Jonah. If you’re like me, you heard it as a child in Sunday School or read about it in a picture book. There’s something about a man being swallowed by a giant fish that fascinates children and adults alike.

Some people say that the story of Jonah is literal truth, that a man actually spent three days in the stomach of a fish and lived to tell about it. They reason that, with God, anything is possible, all the while taking to heart Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:40. Others believe that the story of Jonah is symbolic truth, that it didn’t really happen in the way we read it, but that it is merely symbolic of the grander story of God and man. While, personally, I tend to take more of a literal view of Scripture, I respect the opinions of other thoughtful folks. Regardless of how we might view the story of Jonah, literally or symbolically, I think we can all say that it tells great truth about the rebellion of people and God’s pursuing grace.

Let’s face it. Jonah was a rebel toward God. He was a runaway. Jonah was commanded by God to preach a message of repentance to the wicked people of Ninevah, but instead, got on a boat for Tarshish, about as far away from Ninevah and God’s Call as he could get. To make a long story short, God sent a mighty storm, and the men on the ship tossed Jonah overboard. If not for the grace of God, and the appetite of a huge, hungry fish, Jonah would have been a goner.

One of the things I learn from the story of Jonah is that God is passionate about his relationship with each of us, and that he will pursue us to the very ends of the Earth. Perhaps, God knew that the only way he could return Jonah to his good graces was to do the unthinkable act of commissioning a fish to gobble him up. While that may seem a bit extreme to some of us, I know there have been times in my life where God had to intervene in supernatural ways to restore me.

We’ll look more at the story of Jonah shortly. In the meantime, thank God for his unconditional love and his radical grace, and remember to be careful in the water!

The Scapegoat (Part 4 of 4)

goatOver the past several days, I’ve been writing about scapegoats. These are people or things that, often undeservedly, get the blame in any given situation.

In my first blog in this four-part series, I wrote about the Garden of Eden and how Adam blamed both God and Eve for his unethical appetite. Eve then pointed to the snake as the real culprit of their disobedience. Adam, Eve, and the serpent each played a part of the Fall of mankind into sin, but none of them wanted to take responsibility for their actions.

In my second blog, I discussed sports figures Bill Buckner and Steve Bartman as famous, rather infamous, examples of individuals who took the blame for losses by their respective teams. Buckner became the scapegoat for Red Sox fans when he let a ball go between his legs, while Cubs fan Bartman made a play on a ball he should never have touched.

In my most recent blog, I confessed to a thirty-five-year-old secret concerning something I did in the second grade. My brilliant plan of framing a fellow student was derailed by my friend Billy’s poor spelling and grammar. Admittedly, I was just as at-fault as Billy, but I kept quiet while he took the blame.

Today, I am attempting to wrap-up this series on scapegoats with a Gospel (“good news”) message. I’ve already shared that the scapegoat dates all the way back to the Old Testament of the Bible. The sins of the Israelites would be ceremonially placed upon this poor goat which would then wander off into the wilderness to die. With the scapegoat went the guilt and shame of the Israelites.

Here’s the issue, though. The Israelites had to do this scapegoating activity every year. A year is a pretty long time to fuss over unresolved and unforgiven sin. And while there were other sacrifices performed in addition to the scapegoat, each of them were inadequate to say the least. That is why Jesus’ sacrifice for sin was so important.

The writer of the Bible Book of Hebrews puts it this way, “… (Jesus) does not need to offer sacrifices day after day… He sacrificed for (the people’s) sins once for all when he offered himself” (Hebrews 7:27, NIV). Jesus is our ultimate scapegoat. He took our sins upon himself and carried them to the cross. Because of that, we are forgiven and free.

The Scapegoat (Part 3 of 4)

pencil, sharpener, and paperIf we’re truly honest, I bet each of us has been saved in one form or another by a scapegoat. What I mean is simply this. Each of us has benefited in some way when another person has taken the blame for something we have done. Sometimes our scapegoating comes about in unintentional ways. At other times, it is so very deliberate on our part.

Take for example an incident that happened to me (or maybe because of me) in the second grade. I have changed the names to protect the “innocent”. Johnny was a real stinker of a kid. He was obnoxious and downright mean-spirited toward me and my friends. So, one day I devised a plan to get even with Johnny. I, along with my best friend Billy, would produce an I-know-what-you-did letter “from the teacher” (really from us) that would get Johnny to confess to some “crime” he had committed. It was a brilliant plan, on my part, but poorly executed by my friend, the real author of the “teacher’s” letter. In all my planning, I had failed to take into account that my friend Billy didn’t write or spell very well. So, when Johnny got the letter from the “teacher”, he marched up to her desk and shared with her the letter she had supposedly penned.

What happened next is a bit of a blur. The entire class was given the “we-aren’t-going-to-lunch-until-the-person-who-wrote-this-letter-confesses” speech by the teacher. That is when my friend Billy became the scapegoat. I tried to rationalize my fault at the outcome of this situation. It was technically Billy who had written the letter, and it wasn’t my fault that he couldn’t spell like a teacher. Still, my heart was breaking inside for Billy as he took the tongue-lashing. I sat at my desk, pretending to read a book, fighting back tears, as poor Billy was humiliated in front of the entire class of seven and eight-year-olds. Looking back now at my actions, I realize that a stronger man would have fessed-up to the teacher, but I was not that stronger man. Besides, fake-reading while letting Billy take the fall seemed like the better alternative.

So, why do I tell you all of this? I guess it’s to show that human beings, even second-grade ones, have figured out that each of us needs a scapegoat in life. Each of us is laden with guilt and shame, and we need a “Billy” to “take one for the team” for us. I’m so grateful that I had a friend like “Billy” in my life. But I’m more thankful that I have a friend named Jesus. I’ll have some final thoughts about that tomorrow.

The Scapegoat (Part 2 of 4)

baseballIf you’re a baseball fan, you’ve likely heard the names Bill Buckner and Steve Bartman. Buckner played for the Boston Red Sox in the mid-80’s. Bartman was simply a fan attending a very important game for the Chicago Cubs. So, just what do these two people have in common? If you guessed that they are both scapegoats, you would be correct.

Despite an outstanding baseball career, Bill Buckner is perhaps best known for allowing a ground ball to go between his legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. The error would cost the Red Sox the game, evening out the best-of-seven series against the New York Mets three games apiece. The Mets would go on to win the World Series that year, and many would blame Buckner for the Red Sox epic collapse. Some thirty years after the fact, Buckner’s name remains synonymous with the baseball version of the scapegoat.

In 2003, Steve Bartman became the unlikeliest of sports scapegoats. In Game 6 of the National League Championship Series between the Chicago Cubs and Florida Marlins, Bartman, while sitting in the stands, “interfered” with a ball popped-up down the left field line, preventing the Cubs’ Moises Alou from making the catch. The Cubs would lose the game and eventually the series. Bartman would take the blame in the eyes of thousands of Cubs fans.

Buckner and Bartman are just a couple of the countless scapegoats, not only in sports, but in life. We seem to have a fascination with laying blame on someone other than ourselves. But, did you know that the term “scapegoat” is as old as the Bible itself.

In Old Testament times. the scapegoat provided a way of forgiveness for the people of Israel. Once a year, the sins of the Israelites would be placed upon the scapegoat which would then be released into the wilderness. With the scapegoat went the sins of the Israelites. The scapegoat was just one in a series of sacrifices used to atone for sin.

Now, I’m not claiming that our sins should, or even could, be placed on Bill Buckner or Steve Bartman, although many have tried. Likewise, I’m not saying that Buckner or Bartman should wander off into the wilderness, although I did hear that, following the foul ball incident at Wrigley Field, Bartman moved away from Chicago to… Yep, you guessed it – Florida. I just know that we all need a scapegoat in our lives, someone to put our blame, our sins on. I’m getting to the Gospel, the “good news” here, but you’ll have to check back tomorrow for more of the story.

The Scapegoat (Part 1 of 4)

wildernessPresident Dwight D. Eisenhower once stated, “The search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all hunting expeditions.” Why is this so? Well, likely it’s the result of thousands of years of practice on the part of human beings. In fact, shifting the blame to another individual in any given situation is as old as humanity itself. Check out the Bible’s account of the first two humans, Adam and Eve, found in Genesis. It goes like this.

God says, “…‘Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?’ ” (Genesis 3:11, NIV). Remember, God had issued one rule to Adam and Eve, that they were forbidden to eat from one tree in the Garden of Eden.

Adam responds, “ ‘The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.’ ” (Genesis 3:12, NIV). Here Adam does what many of us would do when we’re caught red-handed. He blames someone else, in this case, Eve. Adam also tries subtly to put the blame back on God, saying, “And oh, by the way, God, you put this woman here with me!” (I paraphrase.)

“Then the LORD God said to the woman, ‘What is this you have done?’ ” (Genesis 3:13, NIV). Now, having the ball (ie., fruit) in her court, Eve blames the only person (or thing) left at the scene – the snake. “The woman said, ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate’ ” (Genesis 3:13, NIV).

Do you see how scapegoating rears its ugly head? When we play the blame game, no one is willing to take responsibility for their actions, it’s always someone else’s fault.

So just where does this term, “scapegoat” originate? It’s Biblical and dates as far back as the Old Testament of the Bible. More on that next time!

Big Words of the Faith – Predestination (Part 3 of 3)

flowers purple and white with dew“For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves” (Ephesians 1:4-6, NIV).

Picture a younger version of yourself on a school playground. One of the older kids is choosing participants for his team. You hear the names of your friends being called and you wonder if you will be chosen to play. Soon, your anxiety is relieved as you hear your name announced. You have been chosen, and to your surprise, so has everyone else. Now it’s up to you. Will you participate?

The above scenario is meant to get us thinking about this idea of predestination, that God has chosen us in Christ. So many people struggle with the notion that they could ever be good enough to be chosen by God. The simple fact is that we are not good enough, but that God has chosen us anyway. That is what grace is, that God looks at us, not based on our own goodness, but on the merits of Jesus and his demonstration of love for us on the cross.

Yes, you are chosen by God, just like the example from the playground. Still, it is up to you as to whether you want to participate in God’s goodness and grace. I can hardly imagine a scenario where anyone would choose to walk away from the forgiveness that God offers through Jesus, but it happens. May we desire to live lives worthy of our calling, for we are chosen.

Big Words of the Faith – Predestination (Part 2 of 3)

flowers white and purple“For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves” (Ephesians 1:4-6, NIV).

The above passage, written by the Apostle Paul, was meant to provide comfort and a strong sense of spiritual security to the young Church in Ephesus. It is meant to do the same for us today. Paul states that we were chosen, even before the world began, to be righteous in the sight of God. This is certainly a righteousness not of own making but rather a gift of God’s grace expressed through the cross of Jesus. Paul further states that we are adopted as sons and daughters, members of God’s holy family.

In Part 1 of my look at predestination, I examined the doctrine of double predestination, the idea that God has chosen some individuals to be saved and others to be condemned. I argued that this is a false doctrine and damaging to the faith of salvation-concerned Christians. Still, I don’t want to dismiss one view of predestination without providing an alternative way of thinking about this topic. So, following is my attempt at providing an analogy that will hopefully help us think about this difficult doctrine.

Picture a younger version of yourself on a school playground. One of the older kids is choosing participants for his team. You hear the names of your friends being called and you wonder if you will be chosen to play. Soon, your anxiety is relieved as you hear your name announced. You have been chosen, and to your surprise, so has everyone else. Now it’s up to you. Will you participate?

In my next post, we’ll break down this simple analogy. In the meantime, know that you are in fact chosen by God. Until next time, live in God’s grace and peace as a true child of the King.