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What’s Eating Your Shade Tree?

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In the last couple of blogs I’ve taken a look at tolah, the Bible’s crimson worm, which I believe is identified in the Old Testament as a type of Christ because of its self-sacrificial provision for its young and other characteristics discussed last time.

So, in addition to Psalm 22, where does the crimson worm show up in the Old Testament?

One interesting place is in the book of Jonah. We all know the story. God sends a reluctant emissary to the nasty and brutish people of Nineveh to warn them of impending judgment. After a detour in the belly of a large fish, Jonah ends up in Nineveh carrying out God’s command to warn the city of the wrath to come. He then retires to a nearby hillside to await the fireworks.

An interesting twist occurs when the people of Nineveh, from the greatest to the least, actually pay heed to his warning, and repent in sackcloth and ashes. Our gracious and merciful God relents of the warned-about judgment and spares the city.

Back to Jonah, sitting on a hill near the city, waiting for fire to fall. Upset that God has relented, he has expressed his anger, as we read in Jonah 4:1-3 …

“Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

God’s response, in verse 4, was simple and patient and to the point: “Is it right for you to be angry?”

It’s interesting that Jonah suspected all along that God might cave and not smack the Ninevites. Why did he suspect this? I think it’s because God has been gracious and forgiving to him. He is getting to know what God is like. He’s not the mean old man the uneducated and ignorant might take him to be. Scripture says God is, to the contrary, “longsuffering and kind.” So much so that Jonah now feels that, as the prophet who warned of destruction, he is in an awkward spot.

So, for a reason I’m not sure I completely understand, other than the fact that we know he’s pouting and angry, Jonah goes off to one side of the city to sit atop a hill and wait. Why? God has already relented. Perhaps he thinks God will choose: him or the Ninevites. “Just let me die.”

This would be baffling except that it strikes a resonant chord somewhere deep within me. So often, when I’m angry and feel wronged, I have a tendency to think self-destructive thoughts. “My wife doesn’t appreciate me. How would she feel if she knew she made me so depressed I crashed this car into a tree? Surely she’d be sorry then that she was so insensitive.” Like small children, we adults certainly know how to pout when we’re mad.

What happens next is almost funny. Sad, but funny. Jonah, who says he’s ready to die, actually gets quite uncomfortable sitting in the sun. (No doubt his skin was bleached by the inside of the fish, and that has to make a sunburn itch.) So Jonah, who earlier in the story was quite ready to die, now seems fairly appreciative when “God provided” a nice leafy plant “and made it grow up over Jonah” to shade his head from the scorching sun. (Hmmm … death suddenly doesn’t look quite so romantic, does it?)

But then, in one of those annoying object lessons which life so readily gives out, Scripture says, “But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

For years I passed over that statement, “God provided a worm …” But, guess what the Hebrew word for “worm” is in this sentence? Tolah.

It is often said that one of the things God is so good at is “comforting the afflicted, and afflicting the comfortable.” It’s amazing how quickly Jonah took that leafy green plant (which God provided) for granted. And, of course, once again, he was mad.

However, this time I think the object lesson began to sink in. The final verses of Jonah’s story read:

“But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”

“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”

10 But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

There are so many lessons in this story. First, it’s interesting how God describes the Ninevites. Their spiritual poverty and ignorance is so great they “cannot tell their right hand from their left.” And we wince (for Jonah) with the irony of God’s not-so-subtle little addendum: “and also many animals.”

Reminds me of O Brother, Where Art Thou? — “No, not the livestock!”

The second lesson is aimed right between Jonah’s (and our) eyes. Even though we don’t deserve everything that we enjoy, that God blesses us with, to make us happy and comfortable and healthy, we still get so attached to them that we come to see them as “rights.” We think, I have a right to food, and medicine, and shelter, and clothing, and fundamentally to be happy and free. God has provided all those things we enjoy, but we take them for granted. Did Jonah say “thank you” for the leafy shade plant?

Tonight I watched a fascinating video called “More Than Dreams.” It presents five true-life case studies of Muslims to whom Christ was sent, through dreams which revealed Him to be the answer to their prayers.

I found it interesting that in each case, their lives were not simply made better. To the contrary, they were cast out by their families, rejected by their societies, abused, scorned, some even suffering attempts on their lives. Their immediate shade, their comfortable circumstances, were destroyed by the newfound reality of Christ in their lives. But a deeper blessing awaited each — a connection with the One True God who had been drawing them to Himself.

We are certainly comfortable. So comfortable that God may choose to provide the Crimson Worm to destroy all that shades us from the truth and expose us to the nitty gritty realities of life. But Jesus didn’t say, “I come that they might be comfortable.” No, He said, “I come that they might have life, and more abundantly.”

Are we willing to let God reclaim the the shade and become truly uncomfortable, if that’s what it takes to make us into the kind of people we need to be?

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