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Who Does God Love?

January 23, 2021
This is a picture of one of the many murals painted on garage doors and walls on Balmy Street in San Francisco. We took a quick weekend trip to San Francisco towards the end of February 2020. Little did we know what the rest of 2020 would have in store for us as well as for our nation and world.

The first time Jonah heard the word of the LORD, he was ordered to go to Nineveh to cry out against their wickedness. Did Jonah respond to God’s call? Well, he did respond to God’s call, just not in the way God intended. Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh. Instead, he tried to take a ship from Joppa to Tarshish. The rest of that story is a narrative that is very familiar to so many people and is a story I learned at a very young age. Jonah was swallowed by the large fish (growing up the big fish was a whale) after the crew of the ship realized it was Jonah who was causing all of their troubles and tossed him overboard to appease God. After being coughed up on shore (I know, ewwwww gross!), Jonah listened to the LORD and went to Nineveh as the LORD had commanded. 

He went a day’s walk into the city and cried out, as the Lord had commanded him: Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown! (Jonah 3:4) The Ninevites from the King to the animals repented! So, that should have made Jonah happy. They had listened to the word of the LORD and repented; Jonah’s mission was a success. Sadly, Jonah wasn’t happy. He was ticked off because the city had been spared! Unlike Jonah, God was concerned about the people of Nineveh and wanted them to repent. 

The call to repentance ties the story in Jonah to the reading from Mark 1:14-20. According to Mark, after John the Baptist’s arrest Jesus began to proclaim the good news. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news. (Mark 1:15) The message Jesus shared which was very similar to John the Baptist’s message (proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins) was the message that he shared with his disciples and the crowds during his ministry. 

In the Hebrew the term used for repent means to turn back, to return. In the Greek the term used for repent/repentance means a change of mind or change in the inner man/woman. I have been pondering what this means for us today. Repentance is more than just a ritual prayer or response by an individual believer. Looking at it personally, how can I return (to God) or have a change of mind (and heart) in my owl life?

Repent and believe the good news… just what is that good news? It is the love and forgiveness of God. How does that impact me? This is where it can be a challenge. How many times have I written or said, Love is at the center of the two commands of Jesus? Love God with all of your being and love your neighbor as yourself. The challenge is that Jesus said that we were to love EVERY neighbor… yes, that includes your enemies… and we are called to pray for those who persecute us. This is a major turning around and I can’t tell you how many times I have had to turn around in my own faith and life. Let’s just say that added together, those times put together would make me incredibly dizzy!

In my own personal experience, I have struggled with people who might not rank up there as enemies, but who I really didn’t like. The bully in middle and high school who taunted and tormented me… it took me a long time to move beyond my initial feelings of anger/inability to love him. Forty years later I ran across one of those bullies at my High School reunion. The anger and hatred that I had felt so long ago was no longer there. Instead, I saw him as a neighbor who was terribly broken. As Denise says, I may not have liked him at the reunion, but I did love him. In another instance I had a senior ranking chaplain who made life frustrating and incredibly difficult for me and for the small staff at the chapel in England. It took me a long time to let go of that anger/inability to love. Two assignments later he was on staff at the USAF Air Combat Command Chaplain’s office. I reported to the Command Chaplain as a readiness resource as an instructor at the Desert Warfare Training Center. He called me one day asking a lot of questions about Chaplain Corps readiness training (training and equipping our personnel to survive and minister in a combat zone). We actually laughed as I answered his questions, and it was a pleasant conversation. Gone was the anger and animosity. Instead, he was a fellow chaplain and a part of our ministry team. He was a colleague whom I had grown to love.

We are at a stage in our nation and world where lines are being drawn and the shouting is so loud that we don’t even stop to really listen to each other. Yes, I am talking to myself as well. It isn’t always easy to listen to those whom we disagree with. In the class I am currently taking in seminary (Engaging a Multifaith World) my classmates and I are being challenged to engage through listening to the stories of others. To learn about the various belief systems requires silence in order to hear the others and to respect the others. 

When I was in the Air Force, chaplains were responsible for providing for the free exercise of religion for all personnel and their families. I served on some fairly diverse staffs over the time I was on active duty. Did we always agree with each other theologically? We didn’t agree on all tenets, doctrines, dogmas, or beliefs but I know that I worked together with staffs that I was a part of and staffs that I supervised to honor, respect, and listen to each other and to the various members of the faith communities we served directly or indirectly. 

Today, I am contemplating how to bring this message to turn around and love God and love ALL neighbors in these divisive times. Initially Jonah didn’t love the people of Nineveh. He wanted them to be struck down by God. Instead, God called on Jonah to turn around and see what God had done through the word Jonah reluctantly and angrily shared with the people. They turned from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. (Jonah 3:8b) Their hearts turned around as they returned to God. We don’t know if Jonah ever did turn around after this happened. The notes in my Bible say: The book concludes with a question, suggesting that the reader must carefully ponder the nature of God. (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, p. 1305)

This is a challenge that we must take up as we seek to love those whom God loves. Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength… and love your neighbor as yourself. May God equip us to answer that call, especially in times like we are living in now.

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