Psalm 23 captures our imagination as children and does so today. We read it at weddings and funerals alike. Why? Because we all want to to be pursued with a love that is beyond comprehension. This is what Psalm 23 keys in on.
But it's hard to see the love of God in a world that feels surrounded by death. But we've all seen it. A loyal love like God's is perhaps nowhere more seen than in the sacrificial mothers we've known. I think of my great-grandmother, Ma Murphy, who raised my mother. Her table was always open to the homeless, pregnant teenage girls, and children in need of a home. Ma Murphy's love also pursued prodigal children. It was a loyal love, loyal beyond all reason, like the kind of love we see from God.
God's love is loyal even when fail to be loyal ourselves. God's love is like that of a shepherd's. It pursues us.
I originally delivered this sermon at Faith Reformed Church in Lynden, WA on May 12, 2019 (Mother's Day). This sermon was prepared in collaboration with pastor J.D. Elgin. Get more sermons like this one by subscribing to the Jesus' Economy Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or SoundCloud.
Tough love is the Jonah way. By closely examining the book of Jonah, and looking at its genre and context, we can come to an understanding of its meaning. While it's a weird book, it profoundly shows God's love. Jonah could be described as a "top 5 worst of" list, but in the "worst" of Jonah and his efforts, we find the best of God. God's love can be tough and it's a love we need.
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An often forgotten message of the gospel is that it empowers us to live free from the burdens of sin. You may be thinking: “but you don’t know what I’ve done, the mistakes I’ve made.” Let me tell you this, God used a murderer, a man named Saul whose name was changed to Paul, to lead the missions efforts of the early church. Do you think God can use you? Paul firmly believed, that despite even his ongoing struggles, that God would prevail. So when you sin, confess and repent. And aim to live a life free from sin.
You’re not alone in this: you can seek accountability, someone to regularly ask you how things are going, that you can be real and honest with. You can grow as a Christian in community. There is no shame, for we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
But it is in the denial of sin that we show that we are Jesus’ followers. First John 2:3–6 (NIV) reads:
“We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.”
So John tells us to live like Jesus did, that means resisting the pull of evil on our lives. On this point, the author of Hebrews says:
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one [Jesus] who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
Jesus was tempted, like us, as a human and prevailed. So know that he is there to listen, understanding of our weaknesses. He wants a better life for you but he is also gracious and loving.
But what are these commands that we should aim to keep? Usually we think of keeping commands as abstaining from something, what we don’t do. But John tells us that Jesus’ command is also about what we should do. In 1 John 2:7–11 (NIV), he says:
“Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining. Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.”
John tells us that his new command is actually old. It is old in the sense that it has been around since Moses first wrote the Law. It is new in the sense that it is now understood in light of Jesus, as an integral part of what it means to follow God. This commandment is to love your “brother and sister;” this is how one “lives in the light.” This is also new in the sense that it is now understood as loving to the point that we are willing to lay down our lives for another person, as Jesus laid down his life for us. On this, Jesus says:
“A new command I give you:
Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another … Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 13:34–35; 15:13).
This is the fourth truth: Light is in the world, fighting the darkness, through the self-sacrificial actions of Jesus’ followers.
This is not the way people in our world live. We live in a every person for him or herself sort of world. At most, it’s every family for themselves.
But John calls us to look at the “whole world” as that which Jesus wishes to redeem (1 John 2:2). And we are to be advocates of this sort of self-sacrificial love. This is how darkness and hate loses, with light and love. This is the trajectory of the true story of the whole world that God is telling.
Because this is such a great contrast, John says in 1 John 2:15–17 (NIV):
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.”
John confirms that we should resist the desires “of the flesh:” pride, sex out of context of marriage, and many other things that could be added to this list. So discipline, as a Christian, is to be desired. This doesn’t mean that human nature is bad, but instead John is juxtaposing the way things are commonly done in the world with God’s ways. He is saying there is a truth to the light and darkness dualism. There is a real war here between what the Holy Spirit desires for our lives and the human realm, culture, pulling us in a different direction.
John reminds us that this is not what is eternal, but instead God and those who enter into relationship with Jesus will last forever. The battle is temporary.
And this is the fifth truth that is often forgotten in our dualistic, two powers metaphor: That there are not two powers in heaven, but one supreme power! That power is God! Satan and Jesus are not equals. Instead, Christ is victor and this is where we find eternal victory.
It is in light of this that John says in his poem in 1 John 2:12–14 (NIV):
“I am writing to you, dear children,
because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.
I am writing to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.
I am writing to you, young men,
because you have overcome the evil one.
I write to you, dear children,
because you know the Father.
I write to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men,
because you are strong,
and the word of God lives in you,
and you have overcome the evil one.”
We have overcome the evil one, because there are not two powers. Hate and love may be at war today, but the love of Christ is victor! This is because there is only one power in heaven and that is God. Live love. Fight the power of hate with it. It is this way that we keep darkness at bay.
As we remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. today, I am reminded of his statement:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Here's its original context, its origins, and what Dr. King would say to us today.
At the core of this statement, you can hear the prophetic voice. Let us remember that Dr. King also had another title—Reverend. He was a preacher.
In King's time, as in ours, many people looked at the injustices and simply ignored them or demeaned them. But for a person living in a country that treats them unjustly, these issues are not something that can be ignored. It’s only convenient to ignore injustices until those same injustices inconvenience you. King regularly pointed this out and mobilized people for action.
Dr. King said the famous, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" in his work from Birmingham Jail, where he was imprisoned for advocating for equal rights of African Americans.
The context should remind us that this phrase cannot be a platitude; it must be lived. It means so much because of who said it and from the context in which it was said.
And it is injustice that we see today—all over our planet. The racial and economic inequality King was fighting against still exists today. So let us not just remember, but act. We have made progress but we must keep moving forward.
Near the end of his life, King was working to bring equality by creating jobs. And yet, so much of the world still lacks jobs, because we haven’t completed the task. This is injustice.
We look around the world and we also see those who are oppressed—who lack spiritual and religious freedom, who lack knowledge of Jesus. This too is an injustice.
We look around our own country today and we still see racism. And this isn't only within our nation (against one another), but it also has to do with the worldview many people hold. Many people view those from other places as outsiders (or less than Americans). There is racism and xenophobia on the global stage. This is injustice.
We must stand up, lift up, and rise up—to fight these injustices, boldly proclaiming that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
The prophets resonate with Dr. King’s words, with lines like:
“Wash! Make yourselves clean! Remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes! Cease to do evil! Learn to do good! Seek justice! Rescue the oppressed! Defend the orphan! Plead for the widow!” (Isaiah 1:16 LEB).
“Thus says Yahweh, ‘Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been seized from the hand of the oppressor. And you must not oppress or treat violently the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow. And you must not shed innocent blood in this place’” (Jeremiah 22:3 LEB).
“Remove from me the noise of your songs, and I do not want to hear the melody of your harps! But let justice roll on like the water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:23–24 LEB).
The Bible’s cry is justice, mercy, and love. There is no other way that aligns with God’s desire.
Much of our world's problems come out of fear. We fear acting against injustice, because of the possible ramifications. We fear those we do not understand. And fear causes us to do terrible things and to not take action when we should. We must fight fear.
Fear cannot dominate our worldview. If any of us are to call ourselves Christians, we must believe in justice for all. We must love without bounds. We must lead out of mercy. This is the Christian cry. Jesus once said:
“ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37–40 LEB).
Love means placing others before ourselves—to love God is to love others. The book of James puts it this way:
“If anyone thinks he is religious, although he does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:26–27 LEB).
Love is only truly practiced by those who can manage their own words—we must all work at this. Love also requires us to prioritize the needs of the widow, the orphan, the refugee, and the outsider. We must believe that is what is good for the entire world is also good for us, because it is.
But love does not mean simply loving those who are hurting—although that is certainly a major part of it. Jesus also once remarked:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘Hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven, because he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:43–44 LEB).
There is no us and them; we’re all simply humanity. God does not look on the world and smile upon one country over another. He loves the entire world equally. And we must do the same.
Love those you don’t understand. Love those on the other side of the aisle. Love those who protest. Love those who protest against you. Love in a way that forces you to self-examine. Love in a way that moves you out isolation and insulation. Love in a way that demands justice. Love with mercy. Simply put, truly love.
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We look around us and are daunted by the poverty and suffering and darkness we see. We know it will take a lot of work to change, and we know God asks us to, but we often choose to sit back and wait.
It’s easy to be lazy and complacent and wait for other people to do the work. But these are some of the most dangerous ideals. They threaten the kingdom of God. The whole body of Christ needs to be working together if we are going to get things done. Even if the hands are equipped with a hammer and nails, they can’t get anything done if the feet don’t take them to the construction site. We simply have to rely on each other. Paul uses the body metaphor in 1 Corinthians to remind the church of the importance of unity. He says:
“But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (1 Corinthians 12:24b-26 ESV)
We have our own jobs, families, and lives, and these things help us justify spiritual laziness in the church. Sometimes, we don’t even notice we are failing to act because we feel like it’s a positive thing to be investing in ourselves. Laziness can, and often does, mask itself as selfish hard work. We might be working for recognition and self-righteousness instead of in love and for Christ. But we have to acknowledge that work done for the wrong reasons has no place in the kingdom of God.
The body of Christ needs to be operating together—and it needs to be moving with the intent God desires. When believers do things for the wrong reasons, the action itself is rooted in selfishness and sin. The action may be fruitful for a time, but it will crumble because it has the wrong foundation. The church cannot stand on actions carried out without love. Paul understood that it is difficult for believers to be united for the right reasons:
“And I will show you a still more excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” (1 Corinthians 12:31b-13:1 ESV)
I know we’re all a little tired; it seems like less work to focus on our lives than it is to participate in a body of believers. It’s especially hard when we don’t call all the shots. Listening to God’s direction, and any leader’s direction, makes us incredibly vulnerable. When we start putting others first, we stop guarding ourselves as much as we like to.
But it is vital that we do this. We radiate God’s love when we love others. And the body of believers will not lose anything by rejecting selfishness, and choosing love instead. Paul reminds us:
“If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:3 ESV)
It’s not enough to have action without love, and it’s not enough to love without action. The things we do on a daily basis should be in response to the callings God puts on our lives. We need to be giving it all we have. Paul returns to this issue in his letter to the Colossians:
“And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17 ESV)
Let us, as the church, check our motivations at the door and leave our selfishness at the foot of the cross. Think of what we could accomplish together, if we truly acted as one, with a heart of love and thankfulness:
“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” (Colossians 3:23 ESV)
Satan wants a lazy church. We fail when we work for people and not for the Lord. But if we, as different members of the same body, rely on love—if we root ourselves in the foundation of God’s love—we can bring real change and light to the world.
I’m intimately acquainted with tough love. Anyone who has worked with me has received tough love; anyone I have worked for has been required to offer it. My wife knows that tough love is the only way to really get through to me. There is a sixth love language everyone and it’s called “tough.”
One of the central themes of the book of Jonah is tough love. Jonah doesn't understand the love God offers Jonah’s enemies. And God loves Jonah, despite Jonah not knowing how to love his enemies or his God. Love is written all over the book. Yet, love as a verb—or even as a noun—is absent from this little book among the Minor Prophets.
Love in the book of Jonah is like Santa at Christmas. Everyone knows what he represents—he doesn’t have to say anything at all. He can feel like a cliché fat man in a suit, but he can also warm your heart—especially when Michael Buble sings about him.
The key to seeing the love in Jonah is first to read it closely, second to really understand it’s genre and context, and third to realize what’s not there. What is absent in this book?
Jonah is foremost poetic narrative. It’s narrative full or irony, parallels, and absurdities. As readers of Jonah, we often interpret it like historical narrative without acknowledging the creativity of the narrator. This does not mean that the book of Jonah is fiction, but it’s narrative is certainly creative.
You could think of Jonah as a dark comedy; it’s meant to illustrate points of truth through strange scenes. A part of your brain when reading Jonah should be saying, “Not computing.” And it’s those points you should especially pay attention to. In this regard, the book of Jonah can be read through a “top 5 worst” events lists: #1) The worst prophet gets a message and runs; #2) The worst boat ride ever; #3) The worst prayer ever delivered from the belly of a fish; #4) The worst sermon ever delivered; and #5) The worst response to God.
In this top 5 worst events list, we also see five deeply profound ideas about love.
The book of Jonah opens with a bang, dropping you straight into an ongoing story.
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’ But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord” (Jonah 1:1–3 NIV).
In the time of Jonah, Nineveh was one of the four major metropolis cities of Assyria. Jonah lived during the reign of Jeroboam II of Israel (who reigned circa 786–746 BC; this is according to 2 Kings 14:25). If you were any other nation at this time, you would have hated Assyria—they were known for their cruelty in warfare. And the patron deity of Nineveh itself, where God called Jonah to go, was a goddess of love and war.
Rather than go to enemy territory, Jonah heads to Israel’s ally, in Phoenicia—probably aboard a Phoenician ship. Jonah could have stayed where he was, but instead makes a conscious decision to go to the opposite side of the known world. So why does he leave? It’s unclear exactly why, but it could be rooted in him not understanding that Yahweh is a God of the entire world, not just Israel. Yahweh is not limited to geography like the other gods worshipped in the ancient Near East. Jonah is running away from his responsibilities. He is a prophet on the run.
God desired Jonah to preach a message of tough love to Assyria. And the fact that he is sent to preach at all shows God’s love: God is giving them a chance to change their ways.
Love, then, is a powerful answer to hate and violence—in both the ancient Near East and today. God loved Nineveh, despite Nineveh's evil. And we will find out in this narrative that love is also the answer to the hate in Jonah’s heart.
Once at sea, a storm hits Jonah’s boat and everyone panics (Jonah 1:4–5). This is a surprise, since Jonah is likely on a Phoenician ship—and the Phoenicians were known for their seamanship. Jonah’s trip to Spain—which is where he is heading—is not going so well for him or for others. This storm is deeply frightening.
Through a little divination by casting lots, the sailors determine that Jonah is responsible. And after a bit of dialog and the sailors trying to make land once more, they toss him in the sea (Jonah 1:6–16).
Is there a message of love here? Perhaps, God could have destroyed the boat, killing Jonah and all the men aboard. But he doesn’t. There is mercy—the sea calms after Jonah hits the water and a great fish is sent to swallow Jonah (Jonah 1:15–17).
We know this to be the case because the narrator makes it clear: “Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17). In parallel, Jonah 4:6–8 likewise emphasizes God’s providence—making this a recurring theme throughout the book. God mercifully saves, despite the actions of Jonah. But he also does not hesitate to change the circumstances to accomplish his purposes. This is tough love.
Once in the belly of the great fish, Jonah offers a prayer of thanksgiving (Jonah 2).
“In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry” (Jonah 2:2 NIV).
Statements like these are common in Thanksgiving psalms (compare Psalm 18:6). This is odd because Jonah is still in the belly of the fish—he hasn’t been delivered from the realm of the dead yet.
From a genre standpoint, Jonah’s prayer sounds familiar. There are many parallel prayers in other passages. Thanksgiving prayers were common in Israel—many of them are recorded in the book of Psalms and the Dead Sea Scrolls uncovered additional documents based in the Thanksgiving genre.
Jonah’s thanksgiving could be genuine and show his faith. He could be genuinely grateful and believe that God will do all the things that he says in his prayer. He could believe in his full deliverance so much that he is proclaiming it like it already has happened.
Or Jonah could be simply following the religious customs of his time without any personal change of heart. This view is rooted in what’s missing here: an admission of guilt or sin and repentance. Jonah is praising God for his rescue through thanksgiving, but he is not admitting why he ended up in the belly of the fish to begin with. Furthermore, Jonah is saying he will return to the temple, not go to Nineveh (Jonah 2:4, 7). He even makes a vow in his prayer, but what vow is he referencing (Jonah 2:9)? He has made God no guarantees that he will obey and go to Nineveh.
Yet, God again shows Jonah love. Despite Jonah’s contriteness, God shows him love by preserving his life and taking him back to dry land (Jonah 2:10).
Upon dry land, God sends word to Jonah again: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you” (Jonah 3:2 NIV).
Jonah then delivers what could be described as the worst prophetic sermon ever: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4 NIV). What? That’s it. Imagine saying to a congregation, “Forty days and you’re going to be overthrown” and then just walking off stage. There is nothing here about Yahweh at all.
Jonah’s message here is ambiguous. The word often translated as “overthrown” or “destroyed” can also be translated as “changed” or “turned.” If the people repent, they will be changed. If the people don’t repent, their city will be destroyed.
Amazingly, the people repent and begin to fast—and the king gets on board and commands this be done (Jonah 3:5–9).
Jonah’s message of repentance to Nineveh was simple and it worked—despite Jonah's faults. Love is seen in how God uses it to turn the hearts of the people.
Love is also seen in God’s great mercy against the violent people of Assyria: “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened” (Jonah 3:10 NIV).
Jonah can’t tolerate this response from God. Despite all the mercy he has personally received, he cannot imagine a world where God loves the people of Nineveh.
“[Jonah] prayed to the Lord, ‘Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing 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. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:2–3 NIV).
Now that he is alive, out of the belly of the fish, Jonah demands to die. He is probably being sarcastic, but it’s still clear that he does not understand the God he serves (Jonah 4:1–3).
When those who once hated Jonah are filled with love for his God, he does not respond with love himself. Instead, he wishes they were dead.
I love God’s response: “Is it right for you to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4 NIV). He questions Jonah’s very ethics. Jonah feels righteous, but God essentially asks him, “Really—are you sure about your position?”
In this region, it could have easily been 120 degrees, so Jonah builds a shelter and God helps by sending Jonah a plant to shade his head (Jonah 4:5–6). But a worm comes along and eats the plant, at the command of God—there is a metaphor here (Jonah 4:7–8). The point of the metaphor: Why be disappointed about things you have no control over—especially for that which you did not earn?
Jonah required more convincing than Nineveh. Thus, God loves him the tough way.
But Jonah is tough too—he still demands to die. God responds gently, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” (Jonah 4:9).
But this doesn’t change Jonah’s mind. So God has to explain it:
“You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:10–11 NIV).
Jonah is exclusive about his love. It belongs to his people, from his God, for those whom he loves.
Jesus directly commented on this problem, saying:
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:32–36 NIV).
And that is the end of the article. Is there anything more to say than that?