A pastor sits beside a parishioner and her dying infant. The child will soon die, not from some tragic disease or a physical ailment present from birth, but because his father, in a moment of blind rage, shook him forcefully enough to cause irreparable damage to his fragile body. Tears are shed, prayers are prayed, water is poured and the baby is sealed as a child of God, and then he dies. This is the firsthand account Rev. Ross Engel gave on this week’s Ringside Live Broadcast. The day after this gut-wrenching scene, Ross headed to the very last place he wanted to be: not to the side of the grieving mother, but to the prison housing the guilty father. “I was mad, and I didn’t want to go,” said Ross, “But I went in there, expecting to tell him how wrong he was for what he did, but he broke down and said, ‘Pastor, I’m so sorry…’ and confessed his sin. What I wanted was for him to not confess it, so that I could lay the law on him, hard, and keep him there. But he confessed…so I [quickly and unemotionally] said ‘In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.’ But mentally, I didn’t want to forgive this guy, because he didn’t deserve it.”
We have all experienced tragedy to some extent, whether we have been wronged directly, or we have watched a loved one suffer at the hands of another. And we have all looked at the guilty party with distain and hatred, declaring them unworthy of forgiveness. We want them to sit in their guilt and despair until the full force of God’s judgement and wrath come crashing down upon them. That is certainly what Jonah desired. God called him to go to Nineveh (which I always picture as an ancient Las Vegas), to speak out against them and their rebellion against God. Yet, Jonah does everything he can to avoid his appointment, and we soon learn why when he resentfully chastises God, “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” (4:2). Jonah is angry, and I think we all get it.
Jonah knew God would show mercy on Nineveh, despite the fact that they didn’t deserve it, and he wanted nothing to do with delivering forgiveness to those people. “Those people don’t deserve forgiveness, they’re terrible sinners, and they deserve every bit of God’s wrath. Just like this guy, who shook his baby and killed it, deserves every bit of God’s wrath. He doesn’t deserve a bit of forgiveness, but that’s what God gave me to do. He gave me the task of proclaiming forgiveness of sins to those who confess, so that’s what I did. That was probably the most half-assed confession and absolution I ever did. He confessed, and he was heartfelt, but for me I was not in the mood,” recalls Ross, “God did it, and it was in spite of me because I wouldn’t have forgiven him. If you send Ross Engel into the room, Ross Engel isn’t forgiving that guy. But He didn’t send Ross Engel, he sent his pastor, and that’s what he was supposed to do.”
We all know in our hearts and minds that we are no more deserving of forgiveness than the Ninevites or the father in Ross’ story, but there are times when the truly horrific moments in life lead us emotionally astray, and we find ourselves sitting shoulder to shoulder with Jonah, angrily waiting to see if the city will be destroyed or not, and glad to be there. Not for the first time, I’m left pondering how extraordinarily unfair God’s grace is, and what an incredible blessing it is that God’s Word works despite our stubbornness and sin. What an astonishing reminder that when I sit in my pew on Sunday morning and my pastor tells me I am forgiven of my many sins, it won’t matter whether he means it with every ounce of his being, whether he’s in a bad mood and mentally fast-forwarding to lunch and the Packers game, or whether he’s incredibly angry with me and secretly doesn’t want a word of it to apply to me. God speaks, and His Word will deliver His salvation to me all the same.
This article is a brief examination of the “metaphorical and theological rugby match” that was this week’s episode of Ringside Preachers. Listen to Rev. Joel Hess, Rev. Paul Koch, Rev. Ross Engel, and Tyler the Intern, as they duke it out over how our military personnel are reacting to the current social upheavals, how much of our time we should focus on politics, why the church needs Jonah, and more on the full Ringside Preachers episode, “Ringside Live.”
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