Is there a better story in the Bible than the story of Jonah? Generations of Sunday School children have listened with wide-eyed amazement at the story of the fish that caught a man. We love this story, yet for all our telling and re-telling, we barely understand what it means.
In order to frame Jonah's story properly, let’s start with the words of the French philosopher Pascal:
To make a man a saint, grace is absolutely necessary. And whoever doubts it does not know what a saint is or what a man is.
Some years ago Philip Yancey wrote a mega-bestseller called What’s So Amazing About Grace? in which he called grace “the last great word.” He meant that it is one of the last of the “great words” that has retained some of its original meaning: “free and undeserved bounty.” For instance, when we pray, we “say grace” to thank God for our food. We are “grateful” for a kindness done by another person. To show our thanks we offer a “gratuity.” Something offered at no cost is said to be “gratis.” And when we have overdue books from the library, we may return them at no charge during a “grace period.”
Our Churches and Our Children
It is commonly said that Christianity is supremely a religion of grace. And that is certainly true. We sing about grace, we write poems about grace, we name our churches and our children after grace. If you ask us, we certainly believe in grace, but outside of the worship services, the word is rarely on our lips.
Yancey points out that part of our problem is in the nature of grace itself. Grace is hard to accept, hard to believe, and hard to receive. We all have a certain skepticism when a telemarketer tells us, “I’m not trying to sell you anything. I just want to offer you a free trip to Hawaii.” Automatically we wonder, “What’s the catch?” because we have all been taught that “there’s no free lunch."
Yancey goes on to say that grace shocks us in what it offers. It is truly not of this world. It frightens us with what it does for sinners. Grace teaches us that God does for others what we would never do for them. We would save the not-so-bad. God starts with prostitutes and then works downward from there. Grace is a gift that costs everything to the giver and nothing to the receiver. It is given to those who don’t deserve it, barely recognize it, and hardly appreciate it.
As I pondered this, a thought hit me in a very powerful way . . .
God is more gracious than I am.
You know how I know that? Because he saves people I wouldn’t save if I were God. He blesses people I wouldn’t bless if I were God. He uses people in his service I wouldn’t use if I were God.
Which is why I’m glad he’s God and I’m not. The Bible says that he is “the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness," (Exodus 34:6) and that’s good news for sinners everywhere.
You can read the rest of the sermon online.