“Now, let me get this straight”, says Lucius Fox, Batman’s armourer extraordinaire, to a Wayne Enterprises employee who has just discovered his boss’s secret identity, “You think that your client, one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world, is secretly a vigilante, who spends his nights beating criminals to a pulp with his bare hands, and your plan is to blackmail this person?
It’s not enough to see the truth if we don’t respond in the right way.
This term, we are exploring the book of Jonah together as Oasis Church. It’s a book absolutely full of links to other parts of Scripture — breadcrumbs for us to follow that tie into the wider Biblical story about who God is, who we are, and how we should respond in light of that. The whole story is an invitation to respond to the God revealed in two short pages — not just that we would see who He is but that, unlike Wayne Enterprise’s Coleman Reese in The Dark Knight, we would respond by making the right choice about what to do with that knowledge.
One of the curious things about Jonah is that unlike many of the characters we meet in the Bible, and, if I’m being honest, myself far more often than I would like, he doesn’t seem to struggle all that much to recognise the love, kindness and mercy of God. He isn’t torn between wondering whether God is genuinely good, painfully indifferent, or conspicuously absent. His view of God isn’t actually all that lacking. In fact, it’s Jonah’s knowledge of God’s identity that drives the whole story — “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity”, he declares in Jonah 4:2— and that’s the whole reason he fled from God in the first place.
Seeing who God is isn’t Jonah’s problem. The problem is how he responds to that knowledge. Jonah’s actions when confronted with the reality of God’s identity is contrasted throughout the story with the responses of others, those seemingly further from God, who see and respond rightly. This theme crops up initially in the very first chapter, in Jonah’s interaction with the sailors:
So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?”
He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”
This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.) - Jonah 1:8–10
The story is rich in comic irony at key moments like this, the incredulous question of the sailors, “What have you done?” not quite carrying the smoothness of Morgan Freeman’s voice, but getting to the same point. “So, you worship the God with all authority over the sea, and your plan is to run away from this person…by boat? And you thought this was a good idea?”
Jonah knows who God is, but knowledge about God only takes us so far; “even the demons believe…and shudder” writes James, in James 2:19.
What he can’t understand, and won’t accept, is that God is far more loving than Jonah wants Him to be. He can’t deal with God’s desire to extend grace to those that Jonah sees as his enemies. He can’t handle God’s heart for whole communities, people groups, and nations to be caught up into His love and to take their place in His work of redemption in the world.
So Jonah flees, however he can, by whatever means necessary. He flees, not in fear for his life, but in fear that God’s ultimate plan to overthrow evil and set things to rights is not His justice expressed through retribution, but His justice at work through His mercy.
Unlike the caped crusader, God doesn’t pursue out of vengeance, but mercy, his weapons not an array of high-powered gadgets, but the laying down of His life on a splintered cross. He conquers not with violence and intimidation, but by surrender and sacrifice, not by flaunting his strength, but by embracing our weakness. Such an action demands a response, one way or another. To embrace this God, or to flee. It’s not enough to identify the reality of who God is if we don’t respond by allowing it to shape who we are and what we do.
Our invitation as we get stuck into this story over the course of this term is to both see and respond. To be caught up again in seeing the wonder of who God is, transformed by that, and sent out with purpose because of it. To respond, not by running, but by embracing the gift of Christ, freely given, and the extravagant, unending love, mercy and grace that He brings — not for the few, but for the many.
A hero we don’t deserve, but one we really, really need.