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03 January 2015

Transformed by Grace

Zenkai, the son of a samurai, journeyed to Edo and there became the retainer of a high official. He fell in love with the official's wife and was discovered. In self-defense, he slew the official. Then he ran away with the wife.

Both of them later became thieves. But the woman was so greedy that Zenkai grew disgusted. Finally, leaving her, he journeyed far away to the province of Buzen, where he became a wandering mendicant.

To atone for his past, Zenkai resolved to accomplish some good deed in his lifetime. Knowing of a dangerous road over a cliff that had caused the death and injury of many persons, he resolved to cut a tunnel through the mountain there.

Begging food in the daytime, Zenkai worked at night digging his tunnel. When thirty years had gone by, the tunnel was 2,280 feet long, 20 feet high, and 30 feet wide.

Two years before the work was completed, the son of the official he had slain, who was a skillful swordsman, found Zenkai out and came to kill him in revenge.

"I will give you my life willingly," said Zenkai. "Only let me finish this work. On the day it is completed, then you may kill me."

So the son awaited the day. Several months passed and Zendai kept on digging. The son grew tired of doing nothing and began to help with the digging. After he had helped for more than a year, he came to admire Zenkai's strong will and character.

At last the tunnel was completed and the people could use it and travel in safety.

"Now cut off my head," said Zenkai. "My work is done."

"How can I cut off my own teacher's head?" asked the younger man with tears in his eyes.

What Zenkai experienced is what we call grace. Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers, said this about grace: “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace - only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”

Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel?
Deliver Daniel, deliver Daniel?
Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel?
And why not every man?
He delivered Daniel from the lion's den
And Jonah from the belly of the whale
And the Hebrew children from the fiery furnace
So why not every man?

"Jonah from the belly of the whale". There are some stories contained in the Bible that many people in the world know, even people who don't identify as Christians. Stories like David and Goliath, Noah and the ark, or Moses and the Ten Commandments. Another story from the Bible that many people know of is the story of Jonah and the great fish.

Jonah the prophet of God thought he could run away from God. He paid for his boat ride, to go as far away as he could! But Jonah forgot one thing … that God is in control.

God sent a violent storm on the sea. The storm was so severe that the ship was in danger of breaking up. Finally, the sailors had to resort to casting lots to determine whose fault it was. The lot fell to Jonah. He was thrown overboard.

You simply cannot hide from God! That is true even if you are in the belly of a great fish. God can still hear and see you. This had to be the strangest location for a prayer meeting, but sure enough, Jonah prayed to God from inside the fish.

This was a time of searching for Jonah. This was a time of repentance for Jonah. After running from God, Jonah now runs to God. As a book of my childhood put it, "The whole big fish was filled  / with Jonah's psalms of praise!"

And when God sees that Jonah is ready to listen, he frees him from that dark prison cell inside the fish belly. “And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.”

Well, Jonah then did what God wanted him to do. He preached to the city of Nineveh. He preached to this city that had run away from God, and, to his great shock, ... they actually listened.

We are approaching the core message of the Book of Jonah. Jonah's response to God's kindness is anger:

4:1 This displeased Jonah terribly and he became very angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord and said, “Oh, Lord, this is just what I thought would happen when I was in my own country. ... I knew that you are gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in mercy, and one who relents concerning threatened judgment. 3 So now, Lord, kill me instead, because I would rather die than live!” 4 The Lord said, “Are you really so very a angry?” 5a Jonah left the city and sat down east of it.

So the angry Man of God sits and sulks:

5b He made a shelter for himself there and sat down under it in the  shade to  see what would happen to the city. 6 The Lord God appointed a little plant and caused it to grow up over Jonah to be a shade over his head ... Now Jonah was very delighted about the little plant.

And Jonah is in for another surprise:

7 So God sent a worm at dawn the next day, and it attacked the little plant so that it dried up. 8a When the sun began to shine, God sent a a hot east wind. So the sun beat down on Jonah's head, and he grew faint.

Jonah is angry again, but this time it's about the simple shrub that has provided shade for him:

8b He said, “I would rather die than live!” 9 God said to Jonah, “Are you really so very angry about the little plant?” And he said, “I am as angry as I could possibly be!” 10 The Lord said, “You were upset about this little plant, something for which you have not worked nor did you do anything to make it grow. It grew up overnight and died the next day. 11 Should I not be even more concerned about Nineveh, this enormous city? There are more than one hundred twenty thousand people in it who do not know right from wrong, as well as many animals!”

The core message of the Book of Jonah is not who Jonah is or what sort of fish swallowed him. It's about who God is: He is "gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in mercy".

We aren't told how Jonah did after being confronted by God, but I am hoping that he was indeed "Transformed by Grace".

A woman was met at heaven’s gate by St. Peter, who said, “It will take 1,000 points for you to be admitted. Points will be determined by the way you lived.” The woman said, “Unless I was sick, I attended worship every Sunday and sang in the choir.” “That’s 50 points,” said St. Peter. “What else?”

“I gave a good deal of money to the church,” the woman said. “Well", said St. Peter, "I think that's worth
twenty-five points. Anything else?”

Realizing she had only 75 points, the woman began to get desperate. “I taught Sunday school for 10 years.” “That’s great, but it’s worth only 25 points,” noted St. Peter.

The woman became frantic. “You know,” she said, “at this rate the only way I’ll get into heaven is by the grace of God!”

Peter smiled as he said, “That’s worth 900 points! Come on in!”

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