When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.
Jonah’s message would have made an edgy little tweet at only 93 characters. But Jonah wasn’t on Twitter, Facebook, or Snapchat. Even if Jonah carried a cell phone, the Ninevites didn’t have good cell service. If they had cell towers, Jonah may have been spotted texting while walking the three days across the capital city of the Assyrian empire, sending out his short bad news message. I like to think that Jonah was a fan of haiku poetry. His message in Haiku is as follows:
Forty more days and
will be overthrown.
Jonah speaks of warning and coming doom. Doomsday messengers are usually ignored, laughed at, or mocked. Jonah’s message is not funny. Oddly, his message strikes home, upturning the hearts of Nineveh from the least to the greatest.
Like Jonah, God’s followers are called to be messengers. Christians are called to present the message of Christ in a multitude of ways, including with humor. Humor is a good gift, especially within the church. Anyone who has any experience within a local church knows there is plenty humor to go around. Maybe you’ve seen the church reader board sign: “Don’t let worries kill you. Let the church help.” Or consider the bulletin announcement: “At the evening service tonight, the sermon topic will be ‘What is Hell?’ Come early and listen to our choir practice.” One of my worst church blooper was a letter sent out to many in the congregation inviting people to a “six-week, hands-on” Small Group Leaders training course. I inadvertently typed the letter “e” instead of the letter “i” in the word “six”. Oopsie! All too often, we in the church mess up the message of God.
Before we moved to Oregon, we lived in Tennessee for six years, 1987–1993. During that time, I recall seeing a strange church sign along a major Tennessee highway with large letters carved in wood that read, “The wages of sin is death. Welcome to 1st Christian Church.” I doubt this sign brought in many off that busy highway. For some strange reason, the leaders of that congregation decided to present the bad news rather than the good news found in the second half that same verse, which reads “but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ.” That sign got me thinking. What six words from the Bible would I choose to put on a church sign? Likely not the first half of Romans 6:23.
In general, people prefer to hear good news over bad news. If you must hear both in one statement, I would guess most people prefer hearing the bad news before the good news, which is the way we often hear the message of God in the Bible. Jonah was sent with a message of bad news of coming judgment to prepare them for the message of great news of God’s compassion.
A few questions come to mind from Jonah’s life at this point in his story. How do you get your message out? What is your message? What is it your life is saying to others? Who are you trying to reach with the message of your life? How often are you on Facebook, Twitter, other social media, or on your cell phone sending out messages? What messages are you sending? If someone gathered your last 100 messages you’ve sent via electronic devices, what would they discover about you, about your life, your faith, your heart? What does your life message say about the heart of God? How are you getting God’s message out?
Miraculously, the people got Jonah’s message. It cut them to the heart, and they all responded in a most amazing way, humbling their lives before God. Even the king of the most brutal empire in the Middle East humbled himself through his actions. First, he got down from his throne. Second, he took off his royal robe. Third, he put on sackcloth along with the poorest beggars of his kingdom. Finally, he sat down in the dust.
Try out the king’s four actions as a path to true greatness.
First, get down off your throne. All of us have a personal throne where we love to sit and hold court. I call my throne the “Kingdom of David”. Stepping down from that position of arrogance or self-inflation is anything but easy. Letting go of power is hard. The Bible calls this step humility.
Second, get naked. Take off your royal clothes, your “dress-for-success” persona. Strip off your false self, shed your old skin, and get down to your birthday suit, to that core person you are by God’s gift at birth, whether that be your birth into this world, or your spiritual birth into life with Christ.
Third, get a new wardrobe. Put on the down-to-earth clothes of repentance, humility, poverty of spirit, authenticity, vulnerability, compassion. Try putting on the clothes of beggars. Become a beggar yourself for a day or if you have courage, for a month. Try asking for help rather than trying to control yourself, others and the rest of the universe. Hold out an empty hand, and ask for gifts of forgiveness, grace, love, and forgiveness.
Finally, get real. Sit down in a new seat. Try sitting on the floor. Better yet, go outside and sit in the dirt. Get real by getting literally “down-to-earth.” Dig your fingers into the earth filling your nails with dirt. Taste dust. See where your body is heading when you die. Reflect for a minute or perhaps for a week that you are mortal and you too will someday become ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Recently, my wife and I have been reading Dr. Brené Brown’s excellent, best-selling book The Gifts of Imperfection. Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. Brown writes,
To become fully human means learning to turn my gratitude for being alive into some concrete common good. It means growing gentler toward human weakness. It means practicing forgiveness of my and everyone else’s hourly failures to live up to divine standards. It means learning to forget myself on a regular basis in order to attend to the other selves in my vicinity. It means living so that “I’m only human” does not become an excuse for anything. It means receiving the human condition as blessing and not curse, in all its achingly frail and redemptive reality.