Church visitors, especially those who have never been to church before, are often amazed to learn of God's love and grace. It amazes them to hear that God loves all people.
That's the experience we want them to have on their first visit. Well, that's what we'd like every person to experience every time they're in our church!
But for this to happen, we need to guard against the Jonahs in our midst!
You see, the folks who have been hanging around church - those who are familiar with the ways of the Lord - often produce the opposite reaction in our guests. Rather than stunning others with God's grace, they pour misery and condemnation on everyone.
Jonah is the Old Testament character who illustrates how we can become so zealous for the righteousness and justice of God that we depreciate his grace. He is one of the Bible's crusty old men.
Jonah's astonishing admission in Jonah 3:10-4:2 grants a fascinating peek into the mind of someone who elevates the Law over grace.
3:10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. 4:1 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2 And he prayed to the Lord and said, "O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. (ESV)
The weak English translation, "it displeased Jonah," hides a surprising admission The Hebrew text employs an interesting grammatical form to emphasize the power of Jonah's passion. Besides drawing our attention to his emotive repulsion, the Hebrew betrays his view of God's deficient management of justice and grace.
A more more accurate (if somewhat wooden) translation is, "it was evil to Jonah, a great evil." This reveals the magnitude of Jonah's anger at God for his gracious treatment of the Ninevites. The Hebrew dictionaries indicate that one field of meaning for the specific Hebrew term is "to be evil, wicked."
Whether this was a statement of Jonah's psychological emotion (wrath) or his estimation of the Lord's action (evil), the results are the same: Jonah fervently repudiated the kindness God offered the Ninevites. Jonah's thinks that a major ethical/moral breach has just arisen. The Lord had done a bad thing by offering grace to the repentant Ninevites.
This is the sort of message - the message of grace - that astounds church visitors. And this is how we should treat church visitors - with grace.
Pastor, please, teach your flock to extend grace rather than anger to the unwashed and unkempt who darken your doors! And if you spot a Jonah headed for your church guests, toss him overboard!