Bad News and Good News

With all the bad news about Ebola and ISIS, my mind turns to words of assurance from folks who knew about suffering in the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. Psalm 121 says, “I lift up my eyes to the hills — from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth…. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.”

My other go to text for fearful times is Romans 8. “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness or peril, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (vss. 35-39).

May that peaceful assurance calm our fears and guide our actions in these trying times.

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Privacy and Psalms 139

Privacy is a hot topic these days. Facebook is now doing more invasive snooping on our on-line activities so they can send me more ads for adult diapers! Wonderful! People justifiably worry about Big Brother/NSA knowing all manner of information about where we go, who we talk to and what we ate for dinner. The thought police from 1984 have arrived, just 30 years late.

But these are not new concerns. Listen to these words from 3000 years ago: “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?”

That’s from Psalm 139:2-5, a great companion piece for the Genesis 28 text that is also in the lectionary for this July 20 where Jacob is reminded at Bethel that when it comes to God, you can run but you can’t hide. The Psalm takes that wisdom to cosmic proportions: “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” (vs. 8-10)

Just as our modern technology that gives us 24/7 access to information, news, weather radar, directions and contact with family and friends is both good news and bad news, we can take God’s omnipresence and omniscience (which simply means God is everywhere and knows everything) as either a threat or a promise – it all depends on how clear your conscience is and your understanding of the nature of God. The words of Ps. 139:7 look the same, “Where can I flee from your presence?” The answer is “absolutely nowhere,” but the intonation of those words sounds 180 degrees different when uttered by someone who lives in mortal fear of a God of wrath and judgment as opposed to someone who knows and trusts the unconditional love of a merciful Lord and Savior.

We sometimes draw a false dichotomy between the God of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Abba Father God of Jesus to explain the difference in those responses. The truth is that both reactions run throughout Judeo-Christian scriptures and theology because fallible human beings always have reason to fear God’s judgment and long for God’s mercy simultaneously. The lectionary texts for July 20 illustrate that rich diversity beautifully. The alternative Psalm for July 20 describes the “New Testament” God (“But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” Ps. 86:15), while it’s the Gospel lesson for this day that sounds a loud warning against unrepentant sin ( “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Mt. 13:41-42).

No matter how much we wish it were so, life is not a simple dualism between grace and judgment. It is a delicate both/and balance between obedience and forgiveness. Grace is not cheap. It comes with a cross-shaped price tag, and even Jesus knew the awful feeling of wondering if the Psalmist got it wrong. Maybe there are places in “the dark night of the soul” (title of famous poem by St. John of the Cross) where not even the God of creation can go! Quoting another Psalm (22:1) Jesus laments through the agony of crucifixion, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46, Mk. 15:34). We’ve all felt that way at some time(s) in our lives if we dare to admit it.

Many years ago I heard a conversation between my in-laws, Bill and May Newman, who at that time had been married 40-plus years. I don’t remember how the topic came up, but they were reminiscing about their dating days. This was long before bucket seats and seat belts changed the way young couples rode in cars. In those days women would scoot over next to their dates in the front seat of the car to snuggle while he drove semi-dangerously with one arm. May teasingly asked Bill, “Why don’t we sit close like that anymore?” He wryly replied, “Well, I’m not the one who moved.”

When we feel discouraged and abandoned, like a motherless/fatherless child, remember God’s not the one who moved. God is still everywhere. The Psalmist says we can’t even shake God if we go to the depths of Sheol – that’s Hebrew for Hell. Of all the places one would not expect to find God, hell has to be near the top of the list. I personally don’t believe Hell is a physical place, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t real or that we have not all been there. Hell is anywhere or any time that we feel cut off from the presence of God, and when that happens desperation sets in; and that is very dangerous because desperate people often do desperate things they would not normally do.

When the Hebrews felt abandoned in the wilderness because Moses was on Mt. Sinai longer than they expected, they built a golden calf and worshipped it (Exodus 32:1-4). When we are afraid and think God’s not watching, that’s a dangerous combination. Under that pressure we may mistreat other people to pursue the false security of wealth or fame. We may try to escape from our anxiety in mind-numbing use of drugs, booze, sex or some other addiction du jour.

That is why we so desperately need to hear the words of Psalm 139 not as a threat by a privacy-invading deity looking for dirt to hold against us. If we stop reading the Psalm too soon that might be the way we feel and be tempted to move away from God or even try to take over the driver’s seat. The same is true of the Jesus story. It doesn’t end on Good Friday, and it doesn’t end with “My God why have you forsaken me!” Keep reading to the end. Like a great novel, God’s salvation history must be pursued to the surprise ending. Luke tells us that Jesus’ great lament was not the final word from the cross. Luke (23:46) records these words of faithful surrender and peace, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.”

To face life and death with that kind of confidence in God’s protection means giving up our idolatrous notions of self-sufficient individualism and privacy. The lectionary lesson omits the bloodier and more self-serving attempts to justify our own worthiness in Psalm 139 (vss. 13-22); but it ends on a realistic note of humility that reminds us how easy and how hard it is to accept God’s persistent presence in our lives. The final verses say, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

God has not moved. God has not abandoned us, no matter how good or bad our lives may be right now. God is ready, willing and able to guide us, but our God is not a God of coercion. The guidance is free, but it comes with one catch – in order to receive it we have to surrender our pride and privacy and be willing to humbly invite God to know us in total transparency.

“A Borrower and a Lender Be,” A Holy Week Sermon on Matthew 21:1-13

Suppose you went out to get in your car at the mall or after church next Sunday or even in your driveway and a couple of strangers were looking it over. When you ask them what they’re doing they say, “Please give us your keys.” I’m guessing the first question you would ask is, “Why?” And when they say, “Because the Lord has need of it,” would you just hand over the keys or would you more likely call the cops?

That’s what the Gospels tell us Jesus did to “borrow” a donkey in preparation for his Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem. We are so familiar with the Holy Week narratives that we often fail to grasp the radical nature of what this story tells us about Jesus and what got him crucified. John Robert McFarland grabbed my attention on this matter in an article in The Christian Century way back in 1990 entitled “Go Steal Me a Donkey.”

This is not Sweet Little Jesus holding lambs and children in his arms. Healing the sick and loving people don’t get you crucified, but challenging the political and economic foundations that society is built upon will get one in a lot of hot water immediately. These verses from Matthew 21 are bookended by donkey stealing and Jesus physically turning over tables in the temple and driving the money changers out because they have claimed what belongs to God for their own purposes. This Jesus is not a wimp. He is one with the courage to challenge anyone and anything that is contrary to God’s wills and to pay the price for his convictions.

Tax day in the US fell within Holy Week this year, and that makes looking at Jesus’ theology of economics even more real. In “Go Steal Me a Donkey” McFarland points out that both socialists and capitalists claim Jesus, but he isn’t either. The former believe in collective ownership of property and the latter in individual ownership. Jesus believes everything belongs to God. In the very next chapter of Matthew (22:15-22) the Pharisees challenge Jesus on the tax issue. They try to trap him with a question about whether it is legal to pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus gives a clever politically correct answer. He says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” That sounds like a safe answer, but Jesus’ actions tell us he knows the bottom line on his 1040 for the IRS would be a big fat zero.

Would he get audited? You bet, but he would do it anyway. Why would he do that knowing the trouble it would cause? Because he knows everything belongs to God, including donkeys and upper rooms in which to celebrate the Passover. Jesus borrows what he needs because it all belongs to God. There’s an old adage about borrowing that is so familiar we often think it should be in the Bible. But “neither a borrower nor a lender be” is not biblical. It actually comes from Polonius in “Hamlet,” not Jesus. In fact, what Jesus says about borrowing and lending is a direct contraction of Shakespeare. “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Matt. 5:42). “If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again” (Luke 6:34).

Jesus borrows: a manger for a cradle, boats to teach in, houses to heal in, and a tomb to be buried in. He doesn’t ask for what he needs, he commands. When he borrows his disciples, he says, “Come, follow me, Now!” No time to bury the dead. Do they leave their families and their livelihood in exchange for some promise of great wealth and fame? No, he says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” When he borrows Peter and Andrew from their fishing nets, when James and John leave their father Zebedee in his boat, when Levi leaves the tax office, do you think Jesus plans on returning them? When you borrow a cup of sugar to bake a cake, do take the sugar out of the cake and return it? I hope we don’t return a used Kleenex after we “borrow” it! When Jesus claims us followers and disciples, there’s no turning back. It’s for keeps, because everything, including you and me, belongs to God–always has, always will.

That’s the bad news. What we think is ours isn’t. We are just stewards and caretakers of what belongs to God, and what’s worse is that selfishly trying to cling to what is “ours” will keep us out of the Kingdom of God. That’s why Jesus says it is harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. It’s why Pope Francis is cracking down on Bishops who build multi-million dollar mansions for themselves while millions starve.

But here’s the good news. We can borrow freely from God whatever we need in life. God gives us Jesus as an example of what that ultimate borrowing of things that really matter in life looks like; and Holy Week is the best example ever of how that works. We see it demonstrated throughout Jesus’ ministry, but it is concentrated in those final days of his life between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. We’ve seen it when Jesus is napping in the boat during a storm. His disciples are freaking out, but Jesus is sound asleep because he has borrowed the peace of God. When those same disciples try to talk him into homesteading on the mountain of Transfiguration where it’s safe and comfortable, Jesus borrows the courage from God to set his face toward Jerusalem and the cross; and he never looks back.

When he is confronted with physical violence and arrest in Jerusalem, he borrows the peace of God again not to resist violence with more violence. His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is not for his own safety and comfort, but he borrows integrity and obedience from God as he prays “Not my will but your will be done.” And then on that dark Friday afternoon, the supreme gift of grace is borrowed again when he says, “Father forgive them” to the men who have nailed him to that cruel cross. Jesus doesn’t say, “I forgive you,” and that’s significant. In mortal agony from those wounds, I believe it was humanly impossible for that amazing compassion to come from Jesus himself, just as it is often impossible for us to forgive those who hurt us badly. Jesus couldn’t forgive them, but he knew someone who could–and that he was free to borrow that strength and grace from his God.

We know that source of grace as well, and we are invited to borrow from that eternal God whenever and wherever we want with no interest and no expectation to repay the debt. The borrowing Messiah of Holy Week teaches us that when we are free of possessions that possess us, when we are free of fears and insecurities from the cares of trying to control our own lives, then we are free to live and free to die. Because we know everything belongs to God, including us, now and forever. Holy Week and Easter invite us again to borrow the gift of grace, the gift of new life.

Adapted from a sermon preached at New Life United Methodist Church, Columbus, OH, Palm Sunday 2014.

“The Power of Persistence” Luke 18:1-8

I was reminded this week of the famous 1972 picture of Kim Phuc, a 9 year-old girl running naked from a Napalm explosion in Viet Nam. She was naked because she had ripped off her burning clothes and was fleeing for her life. She was badly burned, spent 14 months in the hospital and endured 17 surgeries over the next 12 years. Kim spoke in Columbus this week about her journey from that hell to the peace of forgiveness. Among other things, Kim says that it took her a very long time to forgive those responsible for the napalm burns she suffered as a child. She says it took a long time for the “black coffee cup” in her heart to clear. But she prayed every day and every day it became a little clearer. “And one day there was no more coffee left….My cup was empty. God helped me to refill it with light, peace, joy, compassion, understanding, love, patience and forgiveness.”

Kim Phuc’s witness sums up very well the theme of this third sermon in our series on prayer as making circles around God’s promises, i.e. praying hard and long through seasons of disappointment and pain. (This sermon is part of a series based on the book The Circle Maker by Mark Batterson.) In the legend of Honi the Circle Maker, his prayers for rain to end a drought in Israel are answered almost immediately, but what if it takes weeks or months or years for God’s promise of healing peace to become reality?

When prayers seem to be unanswered, many of us have had seasons in our lives when we would agree with the dying mother who told her son who is a pastor that she did not want the hymn “Sweet Hour of Prayer” sung at her funeral because the hour of prayer “is not always sweet.”

Another issue for me is what to pray for when the list of prayer concerns seems longer than the winter of 2014. I often feel selfish to pray for myself when there are so many other needs in the world – terrible suffering in places like Indonesia, Syria and Sudan or all the people without power in the frozen tundra from Georgia to Maine.
One big lesson of the Circle Maker book for me is that I often limit what I pray about for all the wrong reasons. Someone once said that God created humankind in God’s image, and we returned the favor. Because it’s hard to even imagine what God is truly like, we often think of God in human terms, and when we do that we fail to recognize the vastness of God’s power.

If God were like us trying to handle all our prayers it might look like a scene from the movie, “Bruce Almighty.” In the film, Bruce Nolan, played by Jim Carrey, complains that God is not treating him fairly and is given a chance to have God’s power and see if he can do a better job. Things are fine for Bruce when he uses his new powers to get his job back, romance his girlfriend and get revenge on some enemies. But then Bruce begins to get all the prayer requests that normally go to God. He is overwhelmed by hundreds of voices in his head, and God tells him that’s because the prayer requests are backing up on him because he is ignoring the needs of others. So Bruce tries several things to manage all the requests. First he imagines a filing system, but his whole apartment is quickly filled wall to wall with filing cabinets. Next he suggests putting all the prayer requests on post it notes, and immediately he, his dog, his girlfriend, and his entire home are covered in little yellow 3M sticky notes. Finally he creates a computer program to receive prayer requests and starts typing like a mad man to respond, but no matter how fast he types, he cannot keep up and still has over 3 million unanswered prayers in his in box. His solution is finally to just say “yes” to all the requests and make everybody happy. NOT.

The comical scene is a great reminder that God’s ways and God’s powers are not our ways. Our finite minds cannot comprehend the infinite and universal nature of God, and that means is that deciding if I should pray for either my own needs or for the needs of the entire world is a false choice. It’s not an either/or because God, unlike Bruce Almighty can handle any and all the prayers we can offer.

One thing we do know is that God, unlike Bruce, does not just says “yes” to all prayers. Persistent prayer doesn’t mean that all we have to do is ask what for we want and God will overnight it to us like Amazon.com! God knows better than that even if we don’t. A key premise of the Circle Maker is to draw circles around God’s promises, but to do that we must first discern what God truly promises. For example, we often misinterpret Jesus’ promise of an “abundant” life to mean material abundance. But anyone who looks carefully at how Jesus lived knows full well that the abundance he embodied and promised is not of this world at all. We wish Jesus promised us a Rose Garden, but the reality is that we all have to walk the lonesome valley of the Garden of Gethsemane just as he did. Jesus’ promise is not a bypass around suffering but his companionship and guidance with us every step of the way to eternal life.

We also need to be clear that persistence is not the same as stubbornness. If we fail to discern God’s true promises and keep praying for the wrong things our prayers become like wheels just spinning in the ice and snow going nowhere. The secret is listening to God so we know when the answer to a prayer is “no.” In II Corinthians 12 Paul prays three times for God to remove a “thorn in his flesh.” We never find out what the particular problem is, but what we do learn is that Paul clearly heard God’s response to his request and knew that God’s answer was a resounding “no.” So Paul moved on to much bigger things that God was calling him to devote his energies to– like taking the Gospel to Rome and to the rest of the world.

In our Scripture lesson today from Luke, we have a parable about a persistent woman who begs and pleads with an unjust judge so long that the judge finally grants her request just to get her off his back. A word of caution: if we read that text too quickly it might sound like all we have to do is nag God long enough and we’ll get whatever we want. We have to read the first and last lines of that passage carefully to understand what this parable tells us.

Luke says, ‘Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” He then tells the parable of the unjust judge and assures his listeners that God is far more just and compassionate than this judge. Verse 7 says, “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will God delay long in helping them? I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them.” God’s promise is justice. God is not like a vending machine that spits out whatever we ask for, but a God of justice. Like a loving parent God doesn’t grant every wish a child makes, but tempers requests with wisdom and love. A just God is concerned about what’s best for all of creation, and that means we can’t all have everything we want at the expense of others who also have needs.

There’s another reason we need to be persistent and patient when we pray: Luke tells us that God will QUICKLY grant justice. “Quickly” is a relative term, and we must remember that God’s time is not our time. If prayers for warmer weather were based on majority rule and granted quickly on our time frame, spring would have sprung weeks ago, right?

Luke saves the best line of that parable for the very end. After assuring us that God will grant justice, he says, “And yet, when the son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Prayer is all about faith, and the persistent power of faith is what keeps us in prayer when things seem overwhelming and hopeless.
Will Jesus find faith when he looks at you and me? Will he find us praying just for little circles of selfish needs or for justice for all of creation? Praying hard and praying through times of discouragement are the true tests of faith. Anyone can have faith when things are going according to plan, but when we hit detours, pain, failure, that’s when faith alone will see us through.

There’s a Chinese proverb about persistence that says “If you fall down 7 times, just get up 8.” And that applies even when things are blatantly unfair and unjust as they were for the woman in the parable. She refused to give up and her persistence was rewarded.

I Thessalonians 5:17 says that we are to “Pray without ceasing.” That’s the key to persistent prayer because prayer really means staying in relationship with God. We all know that communication is essential to any relationship – open, honest, vulnerable, caring communication. I didn’t say it was easy – if it were easy the divorce rate in our country would be far less than it is. If open communication was easy we would not have wars and violence that happen when relationships between people and nations break down. Communication with God is no different. Like any relationship, we have to work at it, every day, persistently.

When Paul tells us to pray without ceasing, he isn’t saying we need to be on our knees 24/7. That kind of holiness is impressive but not practical. Prayers need legs and feet and hands to be put into action. One of the powerful reasons for praying is that God uses prayer to motivate us to reach out to those we pray for in acts of kindness and mercy. To pray without ceasing simply means we are constantly in touch with our creator as our guide and director.

God is available to everyone 24/7 everywhere and anywhere. How that is possible is way beyond my pay grade as well as Bruce Almighty’s, but it’s true, and it’s true not only of the quantity of prayers God’s In-box can handle, but for the size and scope of what we can and must pray for.

Persistence and patience are partners for powerful prayer. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “The Arc of the Moral Universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I’ve done a lot of reflecting lately on issues of justice and the progress or lack thereof we’ve made toward a just world in my lifetime. I’m coming up this year on my 50th high school reunion, and that has a way of giving one pause. I also recently saw the movie “The Butler” which covers the history of the American Civil Rights Movement from the 1950’s to the present, which just happens to cover most of my lifetime. All of that makes me wonder about how slowly the arc of the universe bends toward justice, and I get impatient to the point of despair. But circle makers pray and work for justice in and out of season. We don’t rest on our laurels but keep a prophetic eye on any place where God’s justice needs to be proclaimed.

We sometimes forget that it is in our own self-interest to pray and work for a just world. Our good fortune to be able to live in a safe, comfortable community does not make us immune to the problems of those who live in other less fortunate zip codes. The economic welfare and safety of the suburbs do not exist in isolation from crime and other social problems in nearby cities. That means our prayer circles need to be large enough to include our neighbors in the broader community and world, not just those people we know by name.

An article in this week’s Columbus Dispatch listed some interesting facts about last year’s top 5 philanthropists in our country – a list of many of the usual suspects. I was troubled to read that Mark Zuckerberg who topped the list had given all of his millions in donations to local agencies in Silicon Valley where his Facebook empire resides. I’m sure there are legitimate needs in Silicon Valley, just as there are everywhere, but to limit the scope of one’s concern to that community seemed very parochial and short-sighted to me. When I commented to a friend about that, he said he had read that after some friendly persuasion was exerted on Mr. Zuckerberg he has donated a very generous amount of money to the Newark, NJ schools. That happened because someone circled that concern and persisted in prayer for a larger vision of justice.

Issues of justice are complex and seeing results is much slower than smaller things we circle in our prayers – but that is no reason not to include them in our prayers. Solving big problems like education and the environment seem hopeless at times, but in the long run unless they are addressed, nothing else will really matter. And so we pray harder and longer, without ceasing, confident that no problems are too small or too large for God.

Whether praying for a loved one who is ill or for a society that is fractured, our prayers are the same – for healing – not just for a simple cure, but for a holistic spiritual healing. That’s the promise of God we can circle in persistent prayer with confidence that our prayers will be heard because God finds faith in those kinds of prayers.

When we feel hopeless – about personal or universal problems – we pray anyway. The God of justice hears our prayers and in God’s infinite wisdom grants mercy and justice in God’s good time. It is not for us to ask when or why – our job is to pray without ceasing, especially when the hour of prayer is not short or sweet.

[Sermon preached at Jerome United Methodist Church, February 16, 2014]

Thanksgivukkah

As we approach another Thanksgiving feast, among the many things I am grateful for are those of you who read my posts in this blog. The number of views this month has been phenomenal and heartwarming, and I thank you all for the encouragement it gives me to feel the appreciation and support I draw from knowing that my words in some small way matter to you. I send my best wishes to you and yours for a most blessed Thanksgiving.

In a rare alignment of calendars, Thanksgiving and the first day of Hanukkah both fall on November 28 this year, and some people are calling it “Thanksgivukkah.” The two celebrations fit together well because both are opportunities give thanks for God’s blessings and renew our trust in God to provide what we really need in life. Today’s Columbus Dispatch had a great reminder if you, like me, need a refresher course in Jewish history: “Hanukkah commemorates the reclamation by the Maccabees of the Second Jewish Temple [in Jerusalem] after it was desecrated by Syrian Greeks in the second century B.C.E. The Maccabees found only one day’s worth of suitable oil to fuel the menorah, but it miraculously lasted for eight days.”

By way of counterpoint, that great source of wisdom, Facebook, gave me a friend’s post today from Somee Cards that says, “Black Friday: Because only in America, people trample others for sales exactly one day after being thankful for what they already have.”

Both stories made me pause to ask myself how thankful I really am, and how much do I really trust God to provide what really matters in life. The first line of Psalm 23 says, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” How much of what drives us in life are wants masquerading as needs? That’s an important question any time, but especially this week.

I remember worshipping several years ago at a small church in a low income urban neighborhood where material blessings were hard to come by. We sang one of my favorite hymns that day, “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” During the singing of that great hymn my attention was drawn to a member of the choir, a woman who is totally blind. As I looked at the pure joy and peace on her face as we sang the words, “All I have needed Thy hand has provided,” I was moved to tears of humility and shame. How often do I throw myself a pity party for some irritating inconvenience or minor ailment, while others suffer the real “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” with grace and gratitude?

My prayer this Thanksgiving and Hanukkah and for the consumer-driven madness of Black Friday is for a simple faith in the providence of a God who takes one day’s oil and says, “Trust me. You’ve got enough.”

Fish Tale and Forgiveness, Jonah 3:1-10

Last week’s text from I Samuel raised a tough question: are some sins beyond forgiveness?  I hadn’t looked ahead in the lectionary then but was pleased to find that the Hebrew text from Jonah for this week offers a great response to that question.

Ask most people what they know about Jonah, and you will get “Jonah and the whale” as their response.  It’s a familiar story kids learn about and sing about in Sunday School, but it is more than a big fish story (which is what the Hebrew says, not a “whale” per se).  I’m not a fisherman, but I’ve always been attracted to Jonah and even chose it as the text for the first sermon I ever preached, way back in 1969.  At the time my wife asked me why that text.  She said, “What does that story mean for us today?”  My response, “Don’t go swimming with big fish.”

Of course, it means much more than that if we take time to ask some basic questions, like what was Jonah doing in the water and why was he swallowed by the big fish?  It’s a very short story, only 3 pages, and it makes much more sense if read in its entirety. But here’s the abridged version:

  1.  God calls Jonah and tells him to go on a mission to Nineveh.
  2. Jonah doesn’t want to go and jumps on a ship headed for Tarshish (in the exact opposite direction) instead.
  3. God is not pleased and causes a storm at sea, and when the sailors learn that Jonah is the reason for God’s displeasure, they throw Jonah overboard.
  4. God appoints a big fish to swallow Jonah. (Not to punish him, by the way, but to save him and give him time to reconsider God’s offer.)
  5. After 3 days God has the fish spit Jonah out; and Jonah decides this time he’d better listen to God, heads for Nineveh and delivers God’s message.
  6. The people of Nineveh heed Jonah’s warning, repent of their sins, and are forgiven and saved from God’s judgment on them.
  7. Jonah pouts because he really wanted God to give the Ninevites hell, not mercy.

So there’s a lot more going on here than Jonah and the fish.  It’s a story about a refusal to say yes when God’s wishes are very plain.  Jonah’s call is not ambiguous as is sometimes the case. The message from God to Jonah couldn’t be more clear and direct: “Go at once to Nineveh” (1:1).    There is no failure to communicate here – just reluctance to obey.  And we all know how smart it is to say “no” to God; so why would Jonah even try?  To answer that question requires a little history lesson.  Nineveh was the capital of Babylon, a hated enemy of the Hebrew people.  Ironically, for our contemporary context, Nineveh sat about where modern day Baghdad is located today.  Given that context, we know what Jonah was being asked to do was take a warning to the people of Nineveh so they could be forgiven and spared from God’s wrath.

Jonah knew, as he says in 4:2, that Yahweh was a God of mercy and would forgive those hated enemies of his people.  Put yourself in Jonah’s place.  Fill in your own favorite enemies: liberals, conservatives, 9/11 terrorists, Republicans, Democrats, Tea Partiers, Muslims, Evangelicals, bitter athletic rivals, business competitors, lawyers, former spouses – whoever it is that you would like to be the very last people God would forgive.  That’s who Johan is being asked to save and why he is a reluctant prophet who dares to defy a direct order from God.  As the story unfolds we see it is one of repentance – Jonah repents of his obedience after God gives him a three-day time out in the smelly innards of a fish.  The people of Nineveh repent after they hear Jonah’s message from God.  And even God gets in on the act and repents of his judgment against the people of Nineveh.

Which brings us, finally, back to last week’s question about unforgiveable sin.  And the answer is “no.”  If God can forgive the enemies of his chosen people who destroyed Jerusalem and carried God’s people off into exile, what could be unforgiveable?

Jonah is a foreshadowing of the grace-filled Gospel of Jesus, which turns on its head the vengeful, don’t get mad, get even theology we often prefer in our Jonah-like assessment of who deserves forgiveness.  Jesus states that Gospel as clearly as God calls of Jonah.  “You have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you, if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”  And, ‘You’ve heard it said, ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:38-44).

That doesn’t sound like a God who would hold anything unforgiveable, does it?   That’s the Amazing Grace we sing about that “saves a wretch like me.”  So, then why does it say in last week’s text (I Sam. 3:14) that the sins of Eli’s house shall not be atoned for forever?  David Stackpole, one of the best students I ever had in preaching class, interpreted that I Samuel text in a way many years ago that made a lot of sense to me then and still does.  David pointed out a couple of key words in I Samuel 3:14 that are easy to read over when our attention is captured by the harshness of the other words in the verse.  He pointed out that the verse doesn’t say their sins cannot be atoned for; it says they cannot be atoned for “by sacrifice or offering.”

We sometimes fall into the trap of imposing our human limitations on God.  Someone once said, “God created us in God’s image, and we return the favor.”  In this case those limitations involve too narrow concepts of not only who and what God can forgive, but how.  The Hebrew theology of Samuel’s day saw sacrificial offerings as the default means of seeking God’s forgiveness.  Ironically, it was Eli’s son’s misuse of sacrificial offerings that got them in hot water.  (See last week’s post for details.)  Eli’s sons corrupted sacrifice as a means of grace with their own selfishness and deceit; so how could something they had no respect for and had broken trust with be a vehicle for finding their way back to God.

But because humans spoil one gift from God doesn’t mean God can’t come up with others.  To put those kind of limits on God would limit God’s power and render God unworthy of our trust.  Jonah tried putting parameters on God’s forgiveness, and we see how well that worked for him.

God’s forgiveness cannot be bought with sacrifice or offering.  But it can be accepted as a freely given gift by those who are humble enough to know we need it.  The Ninevites were forgiven because they repented and admitted their sin (Jonah 4:6-9).  There are multiple scriptures that attest to God’s merciful nature.  The prophet Isaiah (1:18) says, “Though your sins be as scarlet I will make them white as snow.”   Jesus says to his executioners from the cross, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24).  I John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Yes, I know, there are many counter texts that argue for the vengeful God Jonah wished upon his enemies (like we do).  Those texts were written by angry men who wanted their enemies to suffer, but be very careful of that two-edged sword.  Those who live by that unforgivable doctrine will stand under the same judgment.  See living in glass houses and throwing stones?

God’s grace is free.  It can’t be earned by bigger checks in the offering plate or making greater sacrifices of our time and effort.  It is simply poured out in an overflowing cup for those who repent and truly seek it.  What are you waiting for?  There is no need to carry that heavy burden of guilt and anger another day.  God who can show mercy on reluctant, disobedient Jonah and on his dreaded enemies in Nineveh can certainly forgive us too.

Unforgiveable? I Samuel 3:1-20

Are some sins so bad they are beyond forgiveness, even for God?  I sure hope not, but in

I Samuel 3:14 God says, “Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”  That’s the NRSV translation.  Since “expiated” is not a household word, the NIV translation of that verse clarifies things a bit.  The NIV says, “The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering.”  At least that one leaves off the ominous “forever” of the NRSV.  But don’t celebrate that verbiage too soon because both translations agree in verse 13 that this judgment is forever.   No matter how it’s translated, this passage is bad news.  Eli’s family is guilty of some heinous sin that they can never ever make amends for.

Inquiring minds want to know what the sin of Eli’s family is–in part to be sure that particular big no no is not on our rap sheet, but even more we want to know what this Scripture means about the very nature of the God we worship and want to trust with how we will spend eternity.  Are some acts so evil that they are beyond the limits of an infinite God’s power to forgive?

We can all think of potential candidates for the unforgiveable list: genocide, child abuse, hate crimes, cruelty to animals, and murder might come to mind.  Many of us have painful memories of things done to us or by us that stay with us so long they feel unforgiveable.  But just because we mortals can’t forgive something doesn’t mean God can’t, does it?  “The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for” has a ring of finality to it, and with God there’s no higher court of appeal to turn to.

So what is this unforgiveable offense?   I’ll summarize, but the details are found in I Samuel 2:11-17 if you want to read them for yourself.  First, you need to know that Eli and his sons are priests in the temple at Shiloh.  But we are told up front in 2:11 that Eli’s sons are “scoundrels” or “wicked men.”   Their offense is that they violate their sacred priestly duties by taking for themselves the very best portions of meat which are meant to be sacrificed on the altar to God.  Furthermore, they don’t even attempt to hide their wicked ways but boldly and openly demand the very choicest cuts of meat for themselves and even threaten to take those by force if anyone tries to stop them.  Verse 17 concludes this section by saying, “Thus the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the Lord; for they treated the offerings of the Lord with contempt.”

Sadly, in contemporary times it is easy to draw parallels here to clergy embezzlement of funds entrusted to them for feeding staving orphans or betraying sacred trust through sexual misconduct.  It is a given that Christians and clergy in particular must not dodge those hard questions and constantly strive to understand and eliminate the suffering those unacceptable behaviors cause.  But a broader question raised by this text is: are those unforgiveable sins?  In our eyes?  In God’s?

And to muddy the waters even further, for those of us who believe in the priesthood of all believers, the question becomes what offerings of the Lord do you and I treat with contempt?  If all of creation is an offering of God to us and we are entrusted by God with all that we are and all we have, not as owners but as stewards, then how does our stewardship compare with that of Eli’s wicked unforgiveable sons?  When we betray God’s trust and desecrate God’s creation with toxic waste, or pollute our bodies with carcinogenic junk food, or disobey God’s laws against killing, or violate the sacred vows we made at our marriage or our baptism, does God then say to us, “I swear to you that your sins shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever?”

The God I know and love does not pass such harsh judgment, and in most sermons and blog posts I would attempt to show why I believe that and bring some resolution to such a difficult  question.  And I will do that in another post, but not yet.

Sometimes we need to wrestle with the questions of our faith so the answers we find can be claimed as our own.   So I’d like to ask you:  What evidence do you find in Scripture and in life that speak to you about the nature of God and God’s relationship to human sin?  If you were explaining this text to a new Christian or someone living in guilt and fear of an angry God, what would you say?   I invite you to explore this for yourself or with friends and if you like share your thoughts by posting a comment.

Let’s dialogue a bit and next week I’ll share my thoughts on what I think the key to understanding this text might be.