In the Southern Gulf State where I live, we know the signs of approaching storms. Our lives depend upon it. Only a fool would venture out when the water darkens, thunder rumbles, lighting crackles on the horizon, sea birds quiet, and the winds pick up or change direction. You can sense that something is not right.
There is a saying here, “Red sky at night, sailors delight. Red sign in the morning, sailors take warning.” Locals here know it and teach it to our children, whether living among the bayous, on the banks, or on the barrier islands. Our livelihoods and lives depend on recognizing the signs. We don’t need more signs than those to know when a storm is approaching.
Spiritual life everywhere is no different. Christians should know — and teach our children — that the fulfilled prophecies, teachings of Jesus, and miracles recorded in the Bible are signs God gave us to know that Jesus is the promised Messiah. We don’t need more signs than those to know that, through Jesus, God fulfilled His promise of a Messiah.
Yet many people, including some professed Christians, seek additional signs from God that will not be given. They ask God for further proof that Jesus is the Messiah, as if the fulfilled prophecies, miracles, and teachings of Jesus that God has already provided are not enough.
When Jesus was asked by the religious leaders of His day to perform miracles to prove that he was the Messiah, “He replied, ‘You are good at reading the weather signs of the skies – red sky tonight means fair weather tomorrow; red sky in the morning means foul weather all day – but you can’t read the signs of the times! This evil, unbelieving nation is asking for some strange sign in the heavens, but no further proof will be given except the miracle that happened to Jonah.’ Then Jesus walked out on them.” (Matthew 16:2-3)
If I understand history correctly, Jonah (to which Jesus referred) was a prophet from the northern Kingdom of Israel, sometime around 793-753 BC. At that time, Israel was a materialistic culture – a culture that was based on injustice to poor and oppressed people. However, God asked Jonah to prophesy not to Israel, but rather to the Assyrians who were known throughout Israel for even greater cruelty than their own – and who, similar to the Israelites, were in desperate need of repentance. When God first called on Jonah, Jonah preferred God to punish the Assyrians rather than showing them mercy. Jonah was willing to obey God, but in action only. When Jonah set out to obey God, Jonah’s heart was not aligned with God’s willingness to extend His mercy to the Assyrians. During his journey to prophesy in Assyria, Jonah was shipwrecked and swallowed by a great fish. Jonah lived in the fish’s belly and prayed to God for three days. After the third day, God caused the great fish to spit out Jonah – so humbled by God that he could be merciful to the Assyrians in his heart also.
It is believed by many theologians that when Jesus mentioned the prophet Jonah by name, Jesus was foreshadowing His own death and resurrection three days later. Perhaps Jesus needed to live and die like us in order to be aligned with God in action and in heart also. Perhaps Jesus needed the human experience to understand God’s willingness to show mercy to us: “We all know he (Jesus) did not come as an angel but as a human being – yes, a Jew. And it was necessary for Jesus to be like us, his brothers, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God, a Priest would be both merciful to us and faithful to God in dealing with the sins of the people. For since he himself has now been through suffering and temptation, he knows what it is like when we suffer and are tempted, and he is wonderfully able to help us.” (Hebrews 2:16-18)
God is loving and merciful. Only God — not we — can determine who among us is unworthy of His mercy. (See, Jonah 4:11) Mercy is God’s prerogative to give, not ours to withhold — whether for personal material gain or something else. God wants us to obey Him and be merciful to those less fortunate than we, not solely by our actions, but in our hearts as well.
Like Jonah, who lived hundreds of years before Christ, we too live in a country that has become increasingly materialistic, tolerating injustice to the poor and oppressed. Like Jonah, there are other countries than our own whose cruelty to the oppressed and poor is even worse . However, like Jonah and Jesus did, Jesus asks that we humble ourselves and submit to God’s will, not our own. God desires that we obey Him not only through our actions, but in our hearts as well.
Perhaps the world pandemic is a sign from God that Christians have been obeying Him by acts only. Perhaps it is an opportunity He has allowed so that we may examine our relationships with God, our actions, and to realign our hearts to His. By temporarily stripping us of the material things we have gained at the expense of — or indifference to — others, perhaps we will be humbled and better able to understand the suffering and injustice that the poor and oppressed experience on earth without end. Perhaps we will understand God’s call for mercy, not only in our acts but in our hearts as well.
Perhaps this period in time is a sign — a warning — of a spiritual storm that is coming for which we should prepare. As precedes an approaching storm, I sense something is not right.
Photo Credit: Jason Weingart