Matthew 12:38-42 – A Changed Life

The ichthys (pronounced ick-thoos) is an early Christian symbol of new life in Jesus Christ.

Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”

He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here. (NIV)

I say at the outset:

The greatest miracle, the best evidence of God’s work in the world, is a changed life.

Yes, both personal and corporate transformation – not a rearranging or a tweeking of habits – but a wholesale change of heart. New life is new life, and not a reconstituted life.

For many folks, when it comes to any discussion of change and transformation, it is a focus on others changing. Other people need to see things rightly; others who must bend their lives and organizations to how I believe things need to be. As you can tell, putting it in writing and laying it bear sounds an awful lot like pride and hubris. And, it is.

The need for repentance is for everyone, not just a select few or others for whom we believe need to change.

Jesus made waves with many people by hob-nobbing with the least, the lost, and the lowly. Christ actively sought such people out, and healed many of them from sickness, disease, and sin so that they would be united with God and no longer remain on the fringes of society.

Some within the religious establishment of the day did not take the healing ministry of Jesus into consideration because they were not in the transformation business. So, healing miracles which created new life did nothing for them. Jesus was not flexing any real Messiah muscle for them and improving their designs to see Gentiles get beat up and kicked out of Palestine. They even went so far as to ascribe Jesus’ healings as the work of the devil. They wanted a sign from heaven that would authenticate proper Messiah credentials.

Jesus responded by essentially saying there is already a sign that exists, the sign of Jonah. As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a whale, so Jesus would be in the earth for three days and nights. The death and resurrection of Jesus is needed, and when faced with this information, the only appropriate response is repentance, a complete U-turn, to a changed life. Jesus brought up the Queen of the South to make the same point: When the ancient Ninevites, who were a sinful people, encountered the person of Jonah, they repented; when the Queen encountered the person of Solomon, she changed.

Therefore, how much more should we change when encountering the person of Christ?

Jesus himself is the sign. Jonah was in the belly of a whale. He was all but dead. But God caused the whale to belch up Jonah, and he went out as a changed man. The experience of having stomach fluids work on a person for three days and nights, some scholars point out that Jonah would have been both spiritually and physically different – bleached completely white and an incredible sight to see!

The whole point of bringing up this sign of Jonah was to communicate the great need for repentance when faced with Jesus, his life, his teaching, his ministry. The appropriate response to Jesus is a changed life.

Jesus was looking for status quo malcontents, and a desire for transformation and new life.

The process of change is hardwired into all creation – from seasons of the year to the seasons of people’s lives – all are designed for a sustained process of time to revolutionize us.

Jesus modeled this for us. He switched his address of heaven and moved into our neighborhood in order to bring us new life. As the Master of conversion, Jesus always extends the invitation to change. All he asks is to let God do the work of change within us, be patient with the construction of the soul he is doing and persist with daily routines of faith individually and with one another.

It pleases Jesus and it is the heart of God to realize new life. Change for change’s sake is not the point. Change that reflects the values of God is the point. And in order to know that, we must hear the Scriptures, and we must pray to seek the mind and heart of God.

God Almighty, we desire to be transformed by you and allow the life of Jesus to be expressed through us. We desire to walk in the light of your spirit. Reveal to us those things in our life that need to be made anew. Allow us to discern between flesh and spirit so that we can choose a healthy holy path. Continue to give us spiritual awareness. Transform us into something new altogether. May our old life and way disappear, and our new life emerge for the blessing of the world, through Jesus Christ our Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Click I Will Rise by Chris Tomlin as we continue in this season of Eastertide with its focus on new life.

Jonah 1:1-17 – Against Hatred


The Lord’s word came to Jonah, the son of Amittai: “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.”

So, Jonah got up—to flee to Tarshish from the Lord! He went down to Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to go with them to Tarshish, away from the Lord. But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, so that there was a great storm on the sea; the ship looked like it might be broken to pieces. The sailors were terrified, and each one cried out to his god. They hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to make it lighter.

Now Jonah had gone down into the hold of the vessel to lie down and was deep in sleep. The ship’s officer came and said to him, “How can you possibly be sleeping so deeply? Get up! Call on your god! Perhaps the god will give some thought to us so that we won’t perish.”

Meanwhile, the sailors said to each other, “Come on, let’s cast lots so that we might learn who is to blame for this evil that’s happening to us.” They cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. So, they said to him, “Tell us, since you’re the cause of this evil happening to us: What do you do and where are you from? What’s your country and of what people are you?”

He said to them, “I’m a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, the God of heaven—who made the sea and the dry land.”

Then the men were terrified and said to him, “What have you done?” (The men knew that Jonah was fleeing from the Lord because he had told them.)

They said to him, “What will we do about you so that the sea will become calm around us?” (The sea was continuing to rage.)

He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea! Then the sea will become calm around you. I know it’s my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”

The men rowed to reach dry land, but they couldn’t manage it because the sea continued to rage against them. So, they called on the Lord, saying, “Please, Lord, don’t let us perish on account of this man’s life, and don’t blame us for innocent blood! You are the Lord: whatever you want, you can do.” Then they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased its raging. The men worshipped the Lord with a profound reverence; they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made solemn promises.

No escape for the prophet

Meanwhile, the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. (CEB)

One way of outlining today’s Old Testament reading from Jonah is:

God said, “Go!” Jonah said, “No!” And, God said, “Oh!?”

Jonah did a full out run from God’s clear instructions to go to the city of Nineveh. This does not sound like a wise thing to do with God. So, why did Jonah run? Let’s get some perspective….

Who were the Assyrians?

Nineveh was a large city in the ancient world, and the capital of Assyria. The Assyrians had a reputation as fierce soldiers and conquered all the Middle East. They are mentioned many times in the Old Testament. It was Assyria that God used to judge the northern kingdom of Israel. The typical military practice of the Assyrians was to attack a city and completely subjugate it by deporting most of the people and repopulating it with some of their own people. They did this so that the conquered people could not mount a revolt or resistance to their rule.

What is important to know about the Assyrians and the Ninevites is that they were notorious in the ancient world for their brutality toward conquered peoples. Many forms of torture that we are aware of today were invented by the Assyrians. Their methods were so inhumane that it would be inappropriate for me to even discuss them here. I will just leave it at the fact that the Assyrians were experts at thinking-up and executing extreme forms of torture on everyone who resisted their power. It was a very violent culture.

Who is God?

Now, contrast that knowledge of the Assyrians with God. The ways of the Assyrians caught the notice of God, who was ready to pronounce judgment on the heart of the Assyrian Empire, Nineveh. So, as God typically did in the Old Testament, he told one of his prophets to go and give a message. And the message was simple: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” Lest we think God was determined to wipe Nineveh off the map, think again. Jonah confesses later in the book, “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).

Who was Jonah?

Jonah was a prophet of God, which means he set apart to speak for God. So, here we have the rub as to Jonah’s lickety-split in the opposite direction from where God wanted him. Jonah did not like Assyrians. More than that, he loathed them. The last thing Jonah wanted was to have effective preaching and see Nineveh repent of their violent ways. Jonah wanted judgment, not grace.

In this little four-chapter prophetic book of the Old Testament, it is Jonah who needs divine deliverance as much as the Ninevites do. In fact, Jonah’s need for rescue gets more attention than the evil Assyrians. The message of Jonah comes down to this: Racism and hatred, however much perceived to be legitimate, have no part whatsoever in the kingdom of God.

Who are we?

Christians are the community of the redeemed. New life in Jesus Christ involves a wholesale jettison of bigotry and a complete chuck to the manure pile of hatred directed toward any ethnic and/or religious group of people, period. New life means adopting the love of God. It involves becoming a dispenser of grace and mercy with all people, not just the ones we feel deserve it.

What does God want us to learn?

To share the same heart as he has – a heart that beats for people to know and live by a better way – a heart that has grace and compassion even in the face of flat-out evil. We are meant to think twice about pointing the finger at others; to take the plank out of our own eye before we address the splinter in another’s eye.

O God, you created all people in your image. We thank you for the astonishing variety of races and cultures in this world. Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of friendship, and show us your presence in those who differ most from us, until our knowledge of your love is made perfect in our love for all your children; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Click Turn My Heart a beautiful song written by Marty Haugen as we seek to have our lives bend to God’s heart.

Jonah 4:1-11

            Today in my home state of Iowa the presidential campaign gets its official start with the caucus, a time of conversation and interaction on candidates concluding with a vote.  It seems that this presidential cycle will be one of the most rancorous and cantankerous ones in American history (probably not to be outdone by the campaign of John Adams versus Thomas Jefferson, which was fearmongering at its highest).  There is, unfortunately, enough anger to go around on both sides of the Democrats and Republicans.  Fear and anger always go hand in hand.  The fear of which direction our nation is headed has led to vicious vitriol not only in public displays but in private conversations at workplaces and even churches.
            All this fear and anger is quite reminiscent of the Old Testament prophet, Jonah.  The powerful Assyrians were the terrorists of the ancient world.  They inspired fear wherever they went, which meant Jonah’s anger was not far behind.  In an incredible divine intervention, God used Jonah to preach against them which resulted in a national repentance.  Yet, instead of joy and gratitude for God’s mercy, Jonah wanted some payback.  He seemed to believe that the Assyrians needed judgment, not grace.  So, through an object lesson with a vine, God taught Jonah what was most important:  “Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left?”
            We ought to not be too quick to see the hate and discrimination in Jonah.  When our fears turn to anger and we believe that God should bomb Muslims off the face of the earth; when we think our neighbors might be harboring ill-intent just because they are of a different race, ethnicity, or religion; when we have become bitter because of real evil present in this world and want at least a little payback; then, we are no better than Jonah and look just as ridiculous sitting at the edge of the city pouting like a little child.
            Let us rise above the current rancor and be concerned for the billions of people on this earth who need divine intervention and the grace of repentance that leads to new life.  Let us reflect our Lord’s ways by praying for our enemies and doing good works to those who oppose us.  Let us gain the heart of God for the nations of the world and remember what is really important in life.  Any fool can rant against another; but the wise and gracious follower of God patiently and carefully prays and acts in ways that brings Jesus to others.


            Merciful God, your presence of love in this world is truly amazing.  Despite the real existence of evil on this earth, your grace cuts through it all and has the last word.  Work in my life in such a way that fear is done away with and sinful anger vanishes, to be replaced with the love of Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Grace and Anger

            I once dealt with a woman who was so upset with her husband that she was literally shaking with anger.  There had been a time when her husband had been abusive, but he came to know Christ and became a loving person.  What was so upsetting to this woman is that God saved her husband instead of punishing him for all the abuse he had dished out.  She wanted some divine payback!  She was actually furious about God showing grace and compassion.
            This is not a novel or new experience.  In the ancient world, the Assyrians were notorious for their brutality toward conquered peoples.  They thought up forms of torture as a creative past-time. It was a violent culture full of inhumane practices and soldiers who were the scourge of the Middle East.
            We know from the little Old Testament book of Jonah that the ways of the Assyrians caught the notice of God, who was ready to pronounce judgment on the heart of the Assyrian Empire, Nineveh.  So, as God typically did in the Old Testament, he tells one of his prophets to go and give a message.  And the message was simple:  “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2). 
            For whatever reasons, when Jonah did not immediately obey God, God stuck with him.  God did not call another prophet to take his place, but insisted that Jonah be the one to preach.  If God calls us to something and we neglect to do it, we cannot simply think that someone else will do it.  Sometimes God insists that we do it, not someone else.
            Jonah eventually does go to Nineveh (after the infamous being in the belly of a great fish for three days and nights) and there is a great repentance of sin.  The entire city turns from their evil ways.  God saw this mass repentance and relented from sending disaster.  Instead of destroying the city with all its inhabitants and animals, he was gracious and compassionate, abounding in love.  If there is a response God delights in more than anything it is humility and the courage to admit personal evil and turn from it.
            But Jonah has a problem with what is going on.  He is not just a little ticked-off; he is greatly displeased.  He is angry enough about this whole affair to want to die.  Jonah was actually annoyed and angry by God’s goodness.  He wanted justice and judgment, not grace!  The grace of God is so massive that it even extends to some of the most evil people in history, and Jonah wanted no part of that theology.
            God asked Jonah twice:  “Do you have a right to be angry?”  It is the same question that God is asking his people today.  Jonah wanted destruction and pay-back for all the sin of the Assyrians.  But God searches our hearts and to expose our expectations.  Often, when those expectations do not happen we are disappointed.  But more than that, when the very opposite happens of what we want and expect, we can become very angry and upset.
            A lot of people are angry about radical Muslim groups killing and torturing Christians.  It is evil and it is upsetting.  In fact, many of the killings have taken place in the same geographical area as the ancient city of Nineveh.  Yet, perhaps God is asking us Western Christians who are looking for judgment the same question the little book of Jonah ends on:  “But there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world; should I not be concerned about that great number?”


            God wanted Jonah to share the same heart he has, and God desires to see us have a heart that beats for lost people to know Jesus – a heart that has grace and compassion even in the face of flat-out evil.  Sometimes God calls us to do what we least want to do in order to reveal what is really in our heart.  Hating people to the point of wanting nothing but destruction upon them does nothing to bring about the righteous life that God desires.  But the blood of Jesus Christ has the power to bring healing and hope, even to the worst of sinners.  Thank you, Jesus, may it be so.