When it is Said: “I Am Right and You Are Wrong”

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20 NRSV)

These amazing verses affirm the place of Jesus in the Trinity as God-the-Son, His supremacy over all, and His work of salvation. Sounds good right? However in a pluralistic culture such as ours we soon find that in saying such great things about Jesus we are also implying some not-so-great things about Buddha, Muhammad and a whole host of Hindu gods, not to mention agnosticism and atheism among other world-views. Some would call us out on that and claim that the Christian is being arrogant in making such wonderful claims for Jesus. So ought the Christian give Jesus a demotion for the sake of harmony with those of other faiths? Is it the height of arrogance to stick with such lofty, exclusive, and Biblical claims about Jesus? Here are a few things to consider –

1. People place a high value on truth and generally the more precise the better. When it comes to religion, most Canadians value open-mindedness and inclusivity and so the Bible believing Christian will come across as having a very exclusive and therefore unwelcome view of things. However, in so many other areas of life, your typical Canadian values truth! Does anyone wanting to know the temperature want a thermometer that is inclusive so as to not offend some numbers? No we want a thermometer that gives us the one correct reading, the more precise the better. Does anyone want a doctor who is broad minded and arbitrarily diagnoses many diseases so as not offend some diseases? No we want a doctor who can diagnose the correct problem, the more precise the better. Do we want our weigh scales to give a broad-minded range of possibilities? No we want to know the truth (well perhaps this one is an exception). When it comes to religion, truth ought to matter for it has consequences for this life and into the next. It matters far more than the temperature, our weight, and even matters of health. Truth in matters of religion ought to matter because God matters!

2. While people can be offended, things cannot, and religion is a thing. Just like the numbers on a thermometer are not offended when they happen to not be the temperature, just as diseases cannot be offended when they are not the diagnosis, religions will not be offended when they are not correct. People can be offended, but I am not offended when someone tells me I am in error in being a Christian. No one ought to take offence when I conclude they are in error in not being a Christian. It is not an offence to disagree.

3. Making a reasonable truth claim is not evidence of arrogance, but conviction. Do we consider the thermometer to be arrogant in making a truth claim? No, when we have reasons to trust it. Do we consider the doctor to be arrogant in making a diagnosis and setting up a course of treatment? No, when we have reasons to trust in the doctor who is not working out of arrogance, but reasonable conviction based on training and tests. Are the weigh scales being arrogant in telling us our weight? A wee bit insulting perhaps, but no, when they are properly designed, built, and calibrated we have reasons to trust them and the result can be said with conviction. There are good reasons to trust the Christian message, it is not a matter of arrogance to believe and share the message, it is a matter of conviction.

4. Harmony is not won by watering down truth but by respecting the dignity of people. We do not maintain harmony by getting everyone to believe the same things, in fact this would led to great disharmony as it could only happen through coercion and compulsion. Harmony is won through a proper and generous attitude toward other people, not other views. There is plenty of room in Canada for people of different views, so long as each respects the dignity and freedom of the other.

“So Clarke,” you may ask, “do you think that you are right and those who don’t share your Christian convictions about the Biblical passage quoted above are wrong?”


Miffed Like Jonah

God asked Jonah to get up and go to Nineveh and he got up and went in the opposite direction. This disobedient behaviour went way beyond anything I’ve experienced with our boys in their stubborn moments – and let’s hope I can still say that in ten years time! But why did Jonah “flip out” to borrow a line from the boys? Why when called to go one way and do one thing did he flee in the opposite direction? The people of Nineveh respond to his preaching with repentance and when God withholds punishment Jonah himself gives us the reason for his flight:

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. (Jonah 4:1,2 NRSV)

Nineveh represented the enemy to God’s people in Israel so Jonah among others would far rather see the Ninevites receive punishment than have the opportunity of repentance. Jonah was holding a grudge against the Ninevites and if we were in his shoes we likely would too. Perhaps you are in his shoes, so to speak, and are holding a grudge against someone. Perhaps you have an enemy. Perhaps ‘enemy’ would be too strong a word but you have at least someone in your life that has hurt you, wounded you, who has caused you to take offence. If so then you are normal like the rest of us and will benefit from three lessons we can learn along with Jonah.

First, we, along with Jonah, need to make room for God’s sovereign grace. God teaches Jonah a lesson by providing him a bush to shelter him from the hot sun one day then destroying the bush the next. When Jonah gets even grumpier than he already was because of this God says,

“You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:10,11 NRSV)

Jonah’s concerns over the tree are petty compared to God’s concern over people and that is the point. When that day comes in which we behold God’s glory revealed through His glorious salvation, we will find our grudges to be quite petty. It may not feel that way right now and we should not minimize one another’s hurts, but neither can we minimize God’s glory and grace. When God loves those who have hurt you, His grace is abounding just like it does when He loves you. Let us make room for the sovereign grace of the One who said “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Exodus 33:19 NRSV).

Second, we, along with Jonah, are called to be instruments of God’s grace. I first heard the expression “instruments of God’s grace” from a colleague, Mel Finlay, and have been found it helpful. In God’s Kingdom work, it is His grace that is poured out, but we are invited to participate and be used as instruments of His grace. What is interesting with Jonah is that he is not asked to love the Ninevites, rather he simply needs to be obedient to God and let God do the loving. There may be people in our lives who will never inspire our having warm fuzzy feelings toward them. But if we are being obedient to God we will be open to His call upon us to be instruments of His grace in their lives.

However, in Jesus Christ we are called to take one step further into the Kingdom of God by actively loving our enemies:

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:43-35 NRSV)

Loving one’s enemies still does not mean holding warm feelings toward them, but it does mean working for their best. This begins and finds its highest expression in our praying for our enemies, something I can’t imagine Jonah doing. But something we can imagine Jesus doing.

Third, we, along with Jonah, need to watch our attitude toward God. Jonah hits the nail on the head with his description of God found in verse two of chapter four already quoted. In fact Jonah would have aced a Bible Study quiz in his knowledge about God. Where he fell flat, however, was in his attitude toward God as he did not look up to God as his leader, or mentor, or Heavenly Father, or as One whom he aspired to be like. Instead God was to be argued with. Jesus teaches in that same passage about loving our enemies to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 NRSV). This does not mean perfection in the sense of keeping all the rules, though Christian ethics are of course important, but rather it means that we must emulate God Himself, seeing Him as our greatest mentor, guide, leader, and Lord. Just as His perfection is shown in His love toward others, follow His lead and love others too! “But God,” we might yell “you know how deeply I have been hurt by that person you are calling me to love!” Yes He does know, but remembering that He bore your sin and my sin upon the cross methinks God knows all about pain and loving the enemy who inflicted it.

8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. . . For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. (Romans 5:8,10 NRSV)

Let’s move from being miffed with God for loving and being gracious our enemies, to joining Him in love and grace. Let’s move from being miffed like Jonah to being gracious like God.

Setting Sail with Jonah

Being the father of three I must admit to having some experience with disobedience. And being a son myself I have had my own fair share of testing parental patience so I suppose I can relate on some level to Jonah who is a prime Biblical example of disobedience. In fact Jonah’s sin goes beyond drawing a line in the sand with regards to will to leaving the beach altogether in an attempt to flee the presence of God:

But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. (Jonah 1:3 NRSV emphasis mine)

Jonah simply did not like the will of God at this point for reasons we will look at next week, and so his solution to his God problem was simple – create enough distance between himself and God that God’s will would be out of sight and out of mind. I suspect that most of us can relate to Jonah that when God’s agenda conflicts with our own the simple recourse is a course which takes us a comfortable distance from God. So we set sail with Jonah, often in a ship laden with rationalisations as to why we could not possibly do the will of God, reasons which seem reasonable enough to us. Or our ship sits heavy in the water being weighed down with emotions. We feel justified in our anger at God, or our disappointment with God and so feel justified in choosing a different course. Or we set sail in a very busy ship, perhaps a cruise ship full of distractions and enough entertainment that we don’t have time to think of where God had wanted us to be heading, or a working boat with no time to spare. Some of us set sail with a boat load of confidence. Our own will is good, and we are capable of bringing it to pass, so we pass up on God’s will as being not as good, and God’s presence as being unnecessary. And then there are those of us that set sail with the status quo – the same old familiar run from the same old port to the same old destination. Whatever we carry aboard and whatever our intended destination we set sail with Jonah on a trip that we hope leads us away from the unsettling presence of God. And if this can be true of the Christian believer, how much more can it be true for the unbeliever!

But before long Jonah gets into one of those Dr. Phil moments where the question is “how is that working for you?” And how is that working, with storms, a swim, and a big hungry fish? Not so good; Jonah, once hungry for a great distance between himself and God, must realise on the one hand that such simply is not possible, yet on the other hand must fear that it has become a distinct possibility. Distance from God is possible, but not in life, only in death. Perhaps Jonah was hoping for a nice retirement in the quiet waterfront town of Tarshish, but God’s unsettling presence would be found there to keep the prophet from settling in. Only in death could Jonah flee God’s presence, and in the belly if a big fish death was something coming into focus:

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, 2 saying,
“I called to the Lord out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
3 You cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.
4 Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
how shall I look again
upon your holy temple?’
5 The waters closed in over me;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped around my head
6 at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the Pit,
O Lord my God.
7 As my life was ebbing away,
I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
8 Those who worship vain idols
forsake their true loyalty.
9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”
10 Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.
(Jonah 2 NRSV)

In contemplating death, Jonah came to see clearly that distance from God was the last thing he wanted. When we recognise the death that comes into a Christian’s life from fleeing God’s will, whether that death is found in our relationships, in our character growth, or in our potential for love, we realise that distance from God is the last thing we would want. And what about the unbeliever who will someday recognise that life has been lived in the presence of the God he or she has spurned, that a beating heart, and breathing lungs and relationships and food and all that is good and necessary for life has been a gift of God all along? Distance from God will turn out to be the last thing the unbeliever will want.

Let’s not set sail with Jonah and get caught up in his misadventures. God calls us near. God calls us to pick up our cross and follow. Let’s keep in step with His Spirit and step out into His adventure.