The end of the world.
That’s a pretty loaded idea. It haunts and shapes the American imagination about God more than just about any other question of our existence. It’s why Jack van Impe, Timothy LaHaye and John Hagee sell a lot of books and movies. We are unquestionably captivated by the imagery of the book of Revelation, a story of mythic dragons, trumpets and fire.
It seems to be a pretty grim tale for the big beautiful world and its colorful array of people, doesn’t it? In fact, some Christians, in an earnest eagerness for the coming of God’s Kingdom, secretly (or not so secretly) get gleeful about devastating wars, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, famine, etc. Many will passionately preach the coming destruction of the world as inevitable or even God’s will.
Now, for other Christians (largely outside of the United States) the book of Revelation is a powerful, prophetic critique of the beastly empire of Rome, and worldly empires before and ever since, whose violent and monstrous power are defeated by a little Lamb and His peaceable Kingdom.
But for those of us who read it as a violent, God-sanctioned nuking of the great big planet earth, even if that reading is accurate, let’s consider another story in Scripture where a prophetic tale of impending apocalypse is delivered. I’m talking about the story of Jonah.
A whale of a tale, isn’t it?
Jonah ends up being one of the most successful prophets of them all, and he isn’t even trying! It’s comedic.
Jonah doesn’t even want to obey God; he evades him by traveling to the edge of the world, as they know it; inspires a bunch of idolatrous pagans on a boat to pray to Yahweh; as an act of salvation even in his disobedience, God carries him in the belly of a giant fish to be spewed out on the shores of Nineveh; and it’s there that he delivers the worst sermon in the history of all sermons:
..he shouted to the crowds: “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!” (Jonah 3:4)
Riveting stuff, right? You can tell Jonah worked hard on that one. Nevermind that the last guy I saw shouting at crowds on a street corner about the end of the world wasn’t what we might call “successful”. But what does the most violent civilization of the known world at that time end up doing? Well, a kingly decree goes out:
“Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God;” (Jonah 3:7-8)
Yep, the brutish, conquering society suddenly takes up fasting and repentance…
Hosea is throwing over tables right about now.
But, this isn’t the best part. The end of the story is where the really juicy stuff happens. This is where we see that the story isn’t really about the destruction of Nineveh – it’s about Jonah.
And, oh, is he angry with God. You see, God is exactly what Jonah had deep down known He’d always be. Loving. Merciful. He even accuses God of it:
“for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm.” (Jonah 4:2)
No matter how feverish Jonah gets about the destruction of the cruel people of Nineveh, Jonah somehow knows that God won’t follow through with it. And this is where the wisdom of this story pierces us.
Our job is not to be the I-told-you-so at the end of world history. It’s to intercede for the sake of its future.
We aren’t to get giddy when we think we hear God saying “I’m gonna nuke the sucker,” we’re to plead desperately with Him not to, as Abraham did for Sodom.
It isn’t Armageddon we’re drawing up the blueprints for, it’s the New Jerusalem! We may only see the final brick laid when the King returns, but we move towards it anyway.
The problem in this story is not that Nineveh needs to be destroyed. The problem is Jonah wants God to do it.
The problem for us isn’t mapping out the symbols of Revelation, charting blood moons and deciphering when God is going to destroy the planet and its precious people.
The problem is ..some Christians want Him to.