When Repentance Happens: Sermon by Laura, 3.10.13 Lent 4

Text: Jonah 3-4

Friends, we’ve passed the midpoint of Lent; we are on the fourth leg of our pilgrimage through some of the Bible’s 40-Day Journeys. So far, we’ve floated the flood with Noah and heard God’s promise to stick with his creation no matter what; we’ve been up and down Mt. Sinai with Moses and heard God’s promise of forgiveness; and we’ve endured wind, earthquake, and fire with Elijah and heard God’s promise of profound purpose. In each adventure, alongside each towering figure of scripture, we’ve encountered a God whose majesty is matched only by his mercy.

Now, you might expect today’s journey with Jonah is a sea-faring adventure. It certainly begins that way! Commanded to proclaim God’s word in the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, Jonah flees in the opposite direction instead, getting on a boat to Tarshish. When a great storm overtakes it, and the ship is about to break into pieces, the sailors toss Jonah overboard. God provides a large fish, which swallows Jonah. After three days and nights, the fish spits Jonah out on dry land, and God gives Jonah another opportunity to live out his calling. It’s the journey of that second chance we follow today, a dry-land adventure which takes us from the cool water into the blistering heat, both of a desert plain outside a doomed city and of Jonah’s burning, angry heart.

Anger. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to dwell on my experiences of it. Many of us have learned to fear anger, our own and others’, and we anxiously rush to douse it when we begin to feel its heat. But Eugene Petersen offers another view in his book Under the Unpredictable Plant, studying Jonah’s story as her reflects on vocational ministry. He writes, “Anger is most useful as a diagnostic tool. When anger erupts in us, it is a signal that…[s]omething isn’t working right…Anger is our sixth sense for sniffing out wrong in the neighborhood…Anger is infused by a moral/spiritual intensity that carries conviction: when we are angry, we know we are on to something that matters, that really counts.”[1]

Petersen’s perspective will be useful in Nineveh, where Jonah does go, albeit not very enthusiastically. He does the minimum necessary to comply with God’s call, walking one day into the enormous city, proclaiming, “Forty days and Nineveh will be no more,” It’s arguably one of the least inspiring sermons on record. But it turns out to be one of the most effective!

What happens next is, honestly, a little over-the-top. If you think a whale swallowing a prophet is fantastic, the repentance of Nineveh is even more so. Nineveh was infamous as a bastion of brutality and corruption. Yet, the extraordinary good news of this story is that, even for the worst of the worst, repentance happens. The people of Nineveh believed God. As soon as they hear Jonah’s words, everyone from the king on down to the sheep and cows drop everything and begin fasting, wearing sackcloth, sitting in ashes, and crying out to God for mercy. Just picture for a moment all those hungry cattle roaming around wearing sackcloth– No half-measures for those Ninevites! “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands,” the king decrees. “Who knows? God may change his mind.”

And that’s just what happens. God sees Nineveh’s repentance, and God relents from destroying the city.

Now, it seems to me that whenever people take God at God’s word and open themselves to transformation as profoundly as the Ninevites in this story, there ought to be much rejoicing. But how does Jonah react? He’s just helped facilitate a notoriously violent city turning from its evil ways.  Is he pleased, or at least awestruck that his meager words have had such an impact?

Nope! Jonah is not pleased, not pleased at all! Venting his anger at God, you can almost see him stomping his feet like toddler in a temper tantrum. But we finally learn why he fled to Tarshish when God first called him. “I knew this would happen!” he says, before delivering the punch line of the whole story. “For I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

Now, these words are part of a formula describing God which is found throughout the Hebrew scriptures. We just heard a more elaborate formulation of them with Moses in Exodus 34, when God forgives Israel for the golden calf incident. That version of the formula heavily weighted God’s compassion, but it also clearly asserted God’s righteous judgment: yes, God keeps steadfast love for the thousandth generation and forgives sin, but God by no means clears the guilty.

But Jonah’s version of this formula leaves judgment entirely out. From his perspective, God is being too merciful to Nineveh, a city full of the enemies of his people, who, in fact, wipe out Israel’s northern kingdom in 722 BCE. Jonah wants Nineveh punished, and God is not acting the way he believes God should. God’s mercy is absolutely overriding God’s justice. In his anger, Jonah feels asks God to take his life on the spot.

Certainly, per Eugene Petersen’s diagnostics, Jonah’s anger is saying with conviction that something is wrong in the neighborhood! But Petersen would also caution Jonah not to be too hasty to point fingers.  “What anger fails to do,” he writes, “is tell us whether the wrong is outside or inside us. We usually begin by assuming that the wrong is outside us—our spouse or our child or our God has done something wrong, and we are angry…But when we track the anger carefully, we often find it leads to a wrong within us—wrong information, inadequate understanding, underdeveloped heart. If we admit and face that, we are pulled out of our quarrel with God and into something large and vocational in God.”[2]

God does not take Jonah’s life, but asks a question, inviting Jonah to carefully track his anger.  “Is it right for you to be angry?” A more literal translation would be, “Is it good that it burns to you?” Now, the word “good” here can mean righteous or ethical, as our translation implies, but it can also mean “good” as in beautiful or pleasurable.

Have you ever taken pleasure in anger? It sounds strange, but I’ve seen it in action. I know a young woman whose older sister had been the terror of her childhood. She learned to tiptoe around this sister so as not to arouse her sister’s notable temper. One day, when the two women had grown up, the older sister entered into Alcoholics Anonymous and began to work the Twelve Steps. In steps 8 and 9, a recovering person makes a list of people they believe they have injured in some way, and then they seek to make amends with those people, except if doing so might cause further injury. The older sister came to the younger one and sought to make amends. At first, the younger sister reacted numbly, but later, her anger burned inside of her, and she threw the amends back in her sister’s face, and she felt a fierce pleasure recounting all the ways she perceived she’d been injured.

Forgiveness is not easy, not just because true repentance is in short supply, but because people who feel wronged do not easily release their anger. There’s a kind of dark pleasure in listing those wrongs that seems to make up for the lack we might otherwise feel. Our anger reliably heats us up with a self-righteous sense of ourselves in a great battle against injustice.

“Is it right, is it good, for you to burn with anger?” God’s question seeks the deeper truth, the way our anger can become a self-serving crutch which actually distances us from justice.[3] God’s question seeks to reveal the deeper truth: as we have received God’s mercy, we are called to extend it to others.

In the story of the sisters, forgiveness finally came, as the younger sister tracked her anger and realized her equal need for mercy. But, like many of us, confronted at the center of our sinful need, Jonah refuses to answer God’s question.  He just gets up and leaves the conversation, setting up camp where he can passively watch the city. Maybe in forty days, doom will still come for Nineveh.

But Nineveh now seems to be in better shape to God than angry Jonah! And it turns out that God may relent from punishing, but God’s mercy is relentless! Since a sojourn in a fish’s belly wasn’t enough for Jonah to make the connection between God’s mercy for him and God’s mercy for Nineveh, God appoints more, curious, messengers. The shade bush and the worm are deployed, revealing that however hot the heat of the day, the heat of Jonah’s self-serving anger is still more perilous.

“You are concerned about this short-lived bush,” God remarks, “Should I not also be concerned about Nineveh’s 120,000 people who are even more clueless than you about my steadfast love and mercy—and what about all those animals?” One of the things I love about the book of Jonah is that God doesn’t forget those poor animals wandering around in sackcloth!

The other thing I love is what this story does to us by ending with a question. And here’s a fun little exegetical tidbit. Jonah’s angry speech to God earlier in chapter 4 adds up to 39 words in the original Hebrew, just shy of 40, which is understood to be a “complete” number.

God’s speech in response to Jonah, ending with this question, also adds up to 39 words. So it turns out, the story is not yet complete. It’s not complete without us. We might have laughed at the miserable prophet, but now we are also called up to answer.

So I ask you this Lent, what is burning you? Is it right, is it good for you to anger? Will you sit there, stoking the flames while it burns you up, or will you let it go and enter into a much greater joy, receiving and participating fully in God’s incredible mercy?

Take heart, because if Nineveh can repent, than anything can happen! And the forty days Jonah proclaimed to Nineveh have only just begun. God’s mercy and forgiveness for us are not complete, until we begin to share that mercy and forgiveness with others.

How will you complete this story?

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.


[1] Eugene Petersen, Under the Unpredictable Plant, 157.

[2] Petersen, as above.

[3] Haskins, 79.

 

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Remedies for Stiff Necks: 2.24.13 40-Day Journeys in Lent

Texts: Exodus 34:1-10, Deut 9:7-10:10

In the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” Toula, thirty-something daughter of Greek parents, wants to go to travel agent school but knows her father won’t like it. Enlisting her mother’s help, Toula complains, “Ma, Dad is so stubborn. What he says goes. ‘Ah, the man is the head of the house!’” In response, her mother leans in close and says, “Let me tell you something, Toula. The man is the head, but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants.”[i]

Whatever your opinion of the gender dynamics pictured here, let this little interchange draw your attention to a body part we might take for granted—our necks. Necks are marvelous, if you think about it. They have the flexibility to turn our heads almost any direction. We’re not owls, of course, able to turn our necks 180 degrees, but we can usually turn and look over a shoulder to see what’s behind us, helpful when backing a car out of a driveway! Take a few seconds and try out your own neck this morning. Is it feeling flexible? Can you turn to look at the people sitting on either side of you, maybe, or behind you?

No doubt Toula’s mother was also aware how the neck is not only the conduit of vital breath and nourishment, but in a way it also acts as the bridge between the head and the heart, between our inner life and its external expression. The neck is like a telephone switchboard by which our brains communicate with the rest of our bodies, making connections between ingoing and outgoing calls, a “mediator” between “feelings and thoughts, impulses and reactions.”[ii]

Trouble comes when the neck’s lines of communication get overloaded; tension and lack of flexibility result. Maybe we’ve literally been carrying something too heavy, or maybe we’ve suffered whiplash, emotional and spiritual stress can also lodge in our bodies. A build-up of anxiety or the feeling overburdened might lead to the painful lack of flexibility most of us have experienced at some point: a stiff neck.

“This is a stiff-necked people,” Moses says in Exodus 34. That phrase that first came into the conversation between God and Moses a couple of chapters earlier, when Moses’ first 40-day sojourn on Mt. Sinai—also called Horeb—ends in disaster. The people of Israel have sinned against God. They have broken the covenant God established with them, asking Aaron to make a golden calf, which they worshipped in place of God. God tells Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.” It’s not so much a medical as a spiritual diagnosis he’s making, and it certainly isn’t a compliment!

The words “stiff-necked” translate a Hebrew a figure-of-speech derived from oxen that refuse to be led in plowing a field. An ox with a stiff or hard neck could not be turned or guided in the necessary direction. To call the people “stiff-necked” is to say they have a stubborn spirit, unresponsive to God’s guidance.[iii]

Now, there’s no doubt that what they’ve done is awful. But I can’t help but feel some sympathy for the people of Israel. Some of us get stiff necks from one night tossing and turning on a hotel bed; these folks have been taken quite a bit further from the familiar. For four hundred years, the parameters of their lives were dictated by Egyptian slave masters. Now, encamped at the foot of a desert mountain, their leader has begun teaching them new ways to live in relationship with God and one another, but then he disappeared into a “devouring fire” on the mountain. Will he ever come back?

In their place, I’d be feeling the neck pain of unbearable anxiety. And what remedy could they find for it in this unknown place?  Vast promises of a future they can barely imagine are little comfort. They need something tangible to focus upon, something to give them a sense of control. So they turn away from waiting on an untamable and unpredictable God, by “defaulting” into the habits and practices of Egypt, the kind of “do-it-yourself” religion of the ancient world, offering prayers and sacrifices to appease the whims of capricious gods.[iv]

Sometimes, when I have a stiff neck, if I’m patient, the problem will resolve itself. Other times, I try everything I can think of to fix it myself. Maybe if I stretch it this way or that way, the kinks will work themselves out. Should I put hot or cold on it? (I try both). Maybe I take a pain-reliever, then try to massage the spot for myself, so that, soon, I also have a stiff shoulder and arm!

Eventually, I discover that I just can’t help myself. I need someone else, a chiropractor or physical therapist, to help me return to normal flexibility and maybe even teach my body new ways to hold and release the stress which caused the pain.

In yoga class, it occurred to me that we might name such a person an “inter-stretcher.” I’m playing on the word “intercessor” here, someone who negotiates between two parties who might otherwise be unable to communicate.[v] In the case of a spiritually stiff neck, I think the remedy is an “inter-stretcher,” someone to helps us stretch through and beyond the fear and insecurities which lock us up so that we can respond with flexibility and turn and follow the leading of the Spirit of God.

The good news for Israel is that they have such an inter-stretcher. Before he comes down to deal with the golden calf, Moses intercedes for the people with God, such that God relents from destroying the people and starting over with Moses. But now, while God says he will keep his promise to send an angel before them to the Promised Land, God’s presence will no longer go with the people and dwell in their midst. Yet, Moses knows it will not suffice for God to be merely “for” them,

God must also go “with” them. The ways of slavery are so entrenched in people, they cannot imagine the new life God is promising them.[vi] To move through their fear and embrace the habits and practices of God’s chosen people, blessed to be a blessing, to learn to trust and be shaped by God’s purposes, they will need a constant sense of God’s presence dwelling with them. Without God’s presence, there will be no distinction between Israel and any other nation.

Moses returns to God, again interceding for the people, first offering himself to atone for the people’s mistakes. God does not accept that offer, but is open to dialogue. Remarkably, Moses just keeps at it, reasoning and petitioning. His work as inter-stretcher, it seems, is not only to help Israel move through their stiff-necked resistance to God’s purposes, but also to help God stretch God’s mercy beyond all expectations.

Anyone who’s ever wondered if their prayers really mean anything ought to pay attention here. God is not offended but responds positively to Moses’ persistence; God has entered into an intimate relationship with Moses in which this kind of dialogue is welcomed,[vii] and God takes what Moses says very seriously.

So it turns out, even more remarkably, that the true remedy for a stiff-necked people is a God who is anything but stiff-necked himself! In ongoing relationship with people like Israel and people like us, people who are often frozen in fearful resistance, God reveals himself to be open to change which makes a new way for us and for the world. This may seem to contradict traditional notions of God as unchangeable.  But, as scholar Terrence Fretheim notes, “It is this openness to change that reveals what it is about God that is unchangeable: God’s steadfastness has to do with God’s love; God’s faithfulness has to do with God’s promises; God’s will is for the salvation of all. God will always act, even make changes, in order to be true to these unchangeable ways and to accomplish these unchangeable goals.”[viii]

Ultimately, God changes God’s mind again, and agrees to be present with the journeying people, even proving that willingness to Moses. Moses comes back up the mountain for a second 40-days,and nestled in a cleft of rock, God covers Moses’ eyes with God’s hand passing before him that Moses can see, not God’s full glory, which would kill him, but God’s goodness, summed up in the proclamation of God’s name:

‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger,and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,yet by no means clearing the guilty,but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.’

This is a seminal moment in Moses’ journey, and in ours: the God who delivers people from slavery, the God we so grievously disappoint in our stiff-necked stumbling, is a God so good that he freely wills to change rather than forsake the people he has chosen.

This God is untamable and unpredictable, worthy of awestruck worship and obedient regard; but this God is never malicious or capricious, only faithful and forgiving, characterized most completely by his freely given, steadfast love.

God takes relationship with us with terrible seriousness, desiring for us the fullness of life in covenant with him. When we break that covenant, God steps in again and again to make us right with him. And we here know just how far God is ultimately willing to stretch to be with and for us on our life’s journey. God is willing to stretch all the way from heaven to earth, to be with and for us in Jesus Christ, boldly stretching out God’s mercy with God’s own arms on the cross.

The Lenten call is to return, to turn our heads back from whatever way we’ve gotten disoriented, to face our loving Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. The good news is that, even when we cannot make that turning, when our necks have stiffened up with anxiety, despair, or just plain lack of imagination, when the bridge between our heads and our hearts is broken, God turns toward us and makes a new covenant in Jesus Christ, stretching with and for us and making for us a way through the pain.

Friends, let us now receive with humble gratitude God’s loving “inter-stretching” in Jesus Christ, that we may move through and beyond our stiff-necked stasis, and turn our heads to face with courage the road God is leading us to walk. Let us, in turn, stretch out our own arms with and for all the others we encounter, people in need of God’s gracious love all along our journeys. Amen.


[ii] Ken Dychtwald, Bodymind, New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1970, 189.

[iv] Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994, 257.

[vi] Alan J. Roxburg and M. Scott Boren, Introducing the Missional Church, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009, 116-118.

[vii] Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus. Interpretation Series. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990, 285.

[viii] Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus. Interpretation Series. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990, 287.

The Beginning of the Rainbow: Sermon by Keith, First Sunday in Lent, 3.17.13

Friends, our Lenten sermon series was called “Forty-Day Journeys,” and we preached on various stories in the Bible where people experienced something over 40 Days (just as Lent is a 40-Day Journey).

Texts: Genesis 7:1-18, 24Genesis 9:1-3,8-17

 “Right…What’s a cubit?”  Now, who knows where that comes from?  Right.  I discovered this Bill Cosby comedy routine when I was in Middle School and would go to my cousins’ house in South Dakota.  We would listen to that tape for days on end, over and over again, laughing our heads off at this picture of Noah and his reaction to God’s command to build an ark at a time when the earth supposedly knew no rain.  Noah’s story is the first of the forty day journeys that Laura and I will be looking at over our 40 day journey to Easter during Lent.  It rained 40 days and nights.  But this is also a story that most people outside the church also know.  Because of people like Bill Cosby, Far Side cartoons, and modern movies like “Evan Almighty” and the upcoming movie called “Noah” staring Russell Crowe as Noah that help keep this story alive in the modern psyche, whether it is the churched or un-churched.  The new “Noah” movie is slated to come out on the big screen in 2014, but has already run into snags due to, you guessed it, flooding.  Hurricane Sandy’s “rains of biblical proportions” brought the production to a temporary halt last year.

From what I’ve found, there are generally two images that come to mind with the Noah story.  The first is this pretty picture, especially directed at children, of all the animals on the ark, and rainbow hanging in the sky.  It gives you this warm, fuzzy feeling inside. There is even a camp song singing about the arky, arky.  I have to admit we actually have two quilts hanging in the boy’s room with images of Noah, his animals, and the ark.  It has become a pretty picture of church nurseries and toy sets.

And then there is the darker side, the side of God getting angry enough to wipe out all of creation and save a remnant of humanity and birds and the beasts to repopulate the earth.  During the middle ages, this story was not taught to young children.  It usually was taught to people until they were 12 years old or older, because of the mass destruction that is pictured.  We have a friend from seminary who said she cried for days when she found out what God did to the animals.  She wasn’t that worried about the people.  It’s this image that I know I’ve struggled with over the course my time as a Christian.

But to fully get into this story, I think we actually have to step back on several different levels.  First set aside your modern sensibilities.  If your first thought was, “Since there was no flood and people didn’t live that long, I don’t have to listen to this.”  Then you might miss out what the ancient tellers of this story were saying about us and more importantly about God.  All these stories are here for a reason and if we just discount them because they don’t fit our modern mind, we may miss out on some good news.

So where do we begin?  Let’s start with Adam.  Based upon the genealogies in Genesis and how long it says people lived, Adam was still alive when Noah was born.  Can you picture it?  Little Noah sitting on great-great-great-great-great-great grandpa’s lap and Adam telling him, “Let me tell you about the time I used to walk with God in the garden.”  But Noah grew, and he could see the world around him wasn’t a garden anymore as he experienced first hand the brokenness of the creation.  I can picture Noah going up to Adam in his rocking chair and asking, “What happened?”  “You are old enough now, Noah.  Let me tell you about the time I broke God’s heart.”

And that’s what happened to God.  His heart was broken.  You would be hard pressed to find through this portion of scripture that God was angry.  God was saddened by what he saw happening on earth.  The bite of the apple that Adam and Eve took was just the beginning of the violence that was corrupting God’s “very good” creation.  Things spiraled out of control after that.  Proper human relationships were being violated.  Animals went against their created nature and turned upon their human stewards.  Everything was out of balance in struggles for power.  Grieving over his creation, God resolves to destroy the destroyer.  God grieves because he loves what he has created.  What’s at tension in God’s heart is his unstoppable purpose to create a peaceful cosmos and his immovable compassion for destructive, violent humanity.  So God, in heartbroken love, determines to drown it all in the void of watery chaos, a void that is reminiscent of the chaos that existed at the beginning.  Do you remember the first creation story?  God moved over the formless void while his Spirit swept over the face of the waters.  And it is there that God begins to create, giving light and form and life to the chaos.  In the flood, the watery chaos is allowed to come rushing back in and destroy the creation.  And as the waters subside, God recreates his creation, but with a new understanding of what humanity and creation are capable of, and a new promise of how he, as God and Creator, will deal with his fallen creation that he loves dearly.

God commits to new relationship rules with Noah, his family and descendants, all life, and the earth itself in the covenantal promise that God seals with his rainbow.  Nothing is required from creation.  The covenant only sets limits on God.  “As for me…never…never…never will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”  God pledges to set in the sky his war bow, unstrung and pointing away from the earth.  Next time you see a rainbow, notice that it points up and remember that every time God sees it, he is remembering his covenant with creation and humanity.

The covenant that God gives shows how creation, the plants, the animals, all that God has created, including humanity, is one and is interconnected.  What affects one affects all.  The deep purpose of nature is diversity in unity under God’s possession and God’s purposes.  Yet humanity continually and consistently fails to accept the limits placed upon it by God.  We were created to live in harmony with all of creation, but we continually attempt to take possession of what is God’s.  All creation suffers the consequences of the resulting violence, (PAUSE)

but this is not the last word to Noah and those who survive the deluge:  “Abound on earth and multiply on it.”  In spite of the evidence to the contrary, humanity and creation are blessed because God remains loyal to the disloyal.  Since humanity does not and maybe cannot end the downward spiral toward violence, God covenants to do so.

Some of us may not like the picture of God that this creates, a God who is adaptable and changing.  But it also paints a picture of God who is touched to the heart by his creation and willing to accept the hurt that we direct toward him, each other and all of creation, in order to keep hope alive.  The God of this covenant is unchanged only in refusing to give up on humanity and creation.  He steps into this covenant not as an objective judge handing down a divine sentence, but a lover grieving their beloved’s violence while all the time seeking reconciliation.

Friends, God’s purpose for a unified, harmonious cosmos remains in conflict with humanity and our corrupting influence.  Lent recognizes this imbalance.  We can repent, accept our finitude, and stop grasping for control, or will we continue the violence that so breaks the heart of God?  As we turn our faces toward the cross, we find God again saying in love, “Enough!” But instead of giving a watery chaos, God gave of himself, stepping into creation in Jesus Christ.  In his love for us and all that he has created, God goes so far as to overcome the greatest result of the violence we have brought upon ourselves, and that is death.  Christ invites us on that journey to the cross and the void of the grave with him, so that we can be recreated with him to live into the love and purposes God intends for our lives.  It is there we see and experience the Easter dawn, whose resurrection light will reveal a rainbow in the dark western sky behind us.