When I was in college my Mom and Dad used to come to some of my baseball games. It does not sound like a big deal when you hear it like that, but the whole story is that it was not surprising to arrive at a Saturday morning game in Pennsylvania or Maryland and see that my parents had gotten up early and drove from Virginia just to see me play for a couple of hours. Those visits meant a lot to me for many reasons but the one that has always stood out is that they did not have to come. They came to those games not because I needed them to but because they wanted to see me. They chose to wake early, drive a few hours, sit outside, sometimes in cold, miserable weather, spend a few minutes with me after the game and then head back home. The only reason anyone would do that is love. I have never doubted my parents love for me, but those visits were expressions of love that just further cemented the fact that their love for me was much greater than I could understand. God comes to us in the exact same way. He chooses us, He longs for us, He reveals Himself by His Spirit and He speaks His love with His voice. The Creator of all things has every right to sit in heaven and wait for the creatures to long for Him but instead He comes to us. He dwells with us not because we need Him to (although we do) but because He loves us.
Most of us are probably familiar with the book of Jonah. Jonah the prophet gets sent by God to a place called Nineveh. This city was the capital of one of Israel’s enemy nations, Assyria. They were known for their sin, for greed, cruelty and adultery. God told Jonah to go to them and to preach a message of judgment. Jonah had no interest in going to Nineveh so he got on a ship in the opposite direction. In the midst of a huge storm that was threatening to sink the ship Jonah owned up to the fact that it was all because of his disobedience and convinced the crew to throw him into the sea. Once in the water the storm ceased and the sea calmed and Jonah was swallowed by a “great fish”. For three days Jonah remained in the belly of that fish, apparently stubbornly refusing to acknowledge his role in the whole mess. Finally he cries out to God, repents and then is spit up on the shore. From there Jonah goes to Nineveh and preaches the message that God had told him to. At that point something wonderful happens, “So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them.” They repented of their sin, they received the words of Jonah, they all believed, an entire city was saved. What we find out later is that Jonah knew this was going to happen, it is precisely why he had run from the calling, he did not want Nineveh to be saved.
Let’s set Jonah aside for a moment and talk about Nineveh. This was a city of sinners that lived famously in their sin. They had done nothing to deserve an opportunity for forgiveness and certainly had not called on help from God or a prophet. This was a city just like you and I, sheep that had gone astray. God did not send Jonah to them because they deserved a visit, because they had earned a second chance or even because they needed Him to come. God sent Jonah because He loved Nineveh. Imagine the joy that they must felt had when the realized what God had done for them. He not only sent a prophet to them, but when the prophet disobeyed God tracked him down, had him swallowed by a fish, spit out three days later and then sent again to come to them. Imagine those who told the story through the generations, this is how much God has loved us, this is what He has done for us. God loved Nineveh just like He loves you and me, He won’t let anything keep us from His visitation. It’s true, we can deny and overlook His visit, just like Jerusalem did when Jesus came, but He will come. He will present Himself and He will offer His grace and no one, not even a disobedient prophet can stop Him.
Back to Jonah for one second. God’s love for Him was just as great as His love for Nineveh. Jonah was not chosen for this task by accident, there were other prophets that could have gone but God wanted to teach something to Jonah. God wanted Jonah to know His heart, to know His mind and to know the true extent of His love. Jonah’s view of God was too small, too limited, too human. Jonah believed that being a part of God’s chosen nation meant that the others were forgotten, that was never true! One of the most important promises to Abraham was that all the people of the earth would be blessed by the nation being formed through him. Jonah loved being blessed but completely overlooked the calling to be a blessing. So God took a pagan city and used it to show Jonah that His love was greater than ever imagined.
The book of Jonah ends without us knowing how Jonah responded but it does not have to end without us responding. We are all Nineveh and I believe most of us are also Jonah. We all need a visit from God, we need His love, His grace, His mercy and His presence. The great news is that He is God, and as He came to Nineveh He has come to us. He is the shepherd that leaves the 99 sheep safe and secure to chase after the one that wandered away. He is a chaser! Wherever you are right now God is there, He has come to rescue you and to rescue me. If you have fallen short you don’t need to work your way back just receive Him where you are because He is there and His love covers a multitude of sins. The harder part to address is that most of us are like Jonah. We have received God’s love but now we grip it so tightly that we have forgotten that we were not chosen because we deserved it, we were chosen because He loved us, just like He loves everyone else that He has ever given life to. Realizing that God’s love is equal to all men does not cheapen it, in fact, it makes it that much greater. It means that His love is perfect, it is pure, and it is everlasting. His love is not rationed as if it might run out and it is not careful as if it is easily offended or harmed. His love endures forever.
Too often, when we read the book of Jonah we make it about a prophet and a fish. The truth is that the entire story is about how much God loves us and what lengths He will go to show His love. Jonah was not serving Nineveh anymore than Nineveh was serving Jonah, they were both being used to show the other that there was no limit to the love that God had for them. Look around you today and I believe you will see the love of God. Walk obediently today and I believe you will be the love of God. There is some thing, some experience, some person or some word that is going to come into your life today not merely because you need it but because God wants you to know that He loves you. At the exact same time, you are going to be that person, that word, that experience in someone else’s life.
It has been nearly 15 years since I played baseball, since my Mom and Dad made any of those Saturday morning trips to watch me play but I still talk about those visits pretty often. I do more than that though, I now try to make unexpected and unnecessary visits to see my boys. Last week I got to sneak into my 3 year olds class to watch him sing “Take me out to the ball game” with the rest of his friends. Last month I got to take my 9 year old out to lunch after an orthodontist’s appointment instead of taking him back to the school cafeteria. In both instances I thought of my Mom and Dad sitting in the bleachers watching me play. The book of Jonah ends abruptly. We don’t know what happened but I know what I hope. I hope that Jonah got over his prejudice and decided to be amazed by the size of God’s love. I hope that he became a champion for becoming a blessing rather than simply sitting and being blessed. I hope that Nineveh became a lighthouse, a city of salvation and of mercy. I hope that Nineveh became a place that was so overwhelmed by how much they had received that they found it natural to fulfill the much that was then required. I hope that you and I will rejoice in the unexpected and unnecessary visits of God, that we will bask in His love and then overflow into those around us. I hope that we will become those who are filled with the love that has been freely given by God so that we will embrace the opportunity to become those that freely give.