Sunday, March 30, 2014

Jonah: Forty Days of Repentance

(A sermon based on the story of Jonah for March 30, 2014; fourth in a Lent series entitled "Making Good Use of Forty Days")

We learn it in childhood as a story about how God saved a man from drowning by means of a great fish; I hope that today we can hear it as a story about how God saves us from our sins and from ourselves.

Let me first introduce you to the main characters. First, we have the prophet Jonah; the character in this story is apparently based on an obscure prophet of the same name who offered some nationalistic encouragement during the reign of King Jeroboam II of Israel (2 Kings 14:25). Second, we have the people of the city of Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, a devastatingly expansionistic power that dominated the Middle East during the eighth century B.C.E. Third, we have some foreign and pagan sailors. Fourth, we have a huge fish, some cattle, and a tiny worm.

God told Jonah to go preach to Nineveh; Jonah did not want to do that (to understand why, imagine God telling you to go preach to the North Koreans or to Al Qaeda) so instead he booked passage on a ship going as far in the opposite direction as he could go. God caused a great storm to strike the ship so that it was in danger of sinking; Jonah, oblivious to what was happening, slept in the hold while the sailors prayed to their gods. When the sailors found out that they were in danger because Jonah was running away from God, Jonah told them that they should throw him overboard. Instead, the sailors tried their best to bring the ship to land but finally, as a last resort and after asking God not to hold it against them, they tossed Jonah into the sea. When the sea immediately became calm, the sailors worshiped the Lord.

The Lord sent a great fish to swallow Jonah and thereby save him from a certain death. After three days and nights in the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed to God and God caused the fish to vomit the prophet up on dry land. There, Jonah heard the Lord tell him again to go to Nineveh—and this time, having learned a pretty obvious lesson, he went. He walked a third of the way into the city and preached one of the briefest sermons you’ll ever hear a preacher preach: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (it’s only five words in Hebrew). The preacher’s heart was not exactly in it.

I wonder why? After all, if he hated Nineveh so much (as most Israelites of his day probably did), you’d think he would have enjoyed telling its inhabitants that they were done for. Stay tuned …

Meanwhile, there was a surprising reaction to Jonah’s message on the part of the pagan, hateful, hated people of the city: they repented. They believed Jonah’s words and they all put on sackcloth and undertook a fast as signs of their repentance. The king ordered that every person and every animal (!) in the city put on sackcloth and cry out to God. Moreover, the people’s repentance was not to be only symbolic; it was to be marked by a change in their way of life: “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands,” the king said. Their fate was in God’s hands, the king knew, but, he reasoned, “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

And that is exactly what God did—he saw their repentance and he rescinded the judgment that Jonah had said was coming upon Nineveh. Why? Because God is merciful, gracious, and ready to forgive when people—whether or not they are among those who are regarded as the likely candidates to receive God’s mercy—repent.

The people of Nineveh had been told that they were under a death sentence that would be carried out in forty days. How did they use their forty days? Did they use them to make excuses about why they were like they were? No. Did they use them to point out how others deserved judgment as much as they did? No. Did they use them to try to figure some clever way out of their predicament? No. They used their forty days to repent—to mourn over their sinfulness and to point their lives in a Godward direction—and they used the spiritual disciplines that were available to them, namely fasting and wearing sackcloth, to help them do so.

And how did God’s prophet Jonah use his forty days? He got angry over God’s decision to show mercy to the people of Nineveh and went outside the city to see what would happen when the forty days were up. His attitude was “Who knows? Perhaps God will change his mind again and destroy the city.” Why was he angry? Listen to his prayer:

“O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; 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. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

He was angry because God had shown mercy to someone that Jonah didn’t believe deserved mercy; he preferred “justice”—his definition of justice—over mercy and destruction over compassion. He didn’t want his enemies to experience the same grace and mercy that his people knew and celebrated.

God caused a bush to grow up over Jonah to give him shade; then God caused a worm to eat the bush so that it died. Jonah was very sorry about the death of the bush. God pointed out to Jonah that it really was something that he was so concerned about the bush that saved him from sunburn but couldn’t fathom God’s desire to save the people and animals of one of the world’s great cities.

Jonah appreciated God’s mercy when it was given to him and his but not so much when it was given to others and theirs.

So--how are you going to spend your forty days? How are you going to spend your life? Are you going to spend it in repentance for your own sins or in judgment of others for theirs? Are you going to spend it in asking God to change your life for the better or in being jealous of the mercy God shows to others? Are you going to spend it in praying against your enemies or in praying for your enemies?

Like Jonah, Jesus went outside the city, not to sit under a bush that God had given him but to die on a tree that God had placed before him. As he was being nailed to it, he prayed “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” And then Jesus died—for me, for you, and for them …

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Elijah: Forty Days of Pilgrimage

(A sermon based on 1 Kings 19:1-9 & John 6:47-58 for Sunday, March 23, 2014)

[Third in a Lenten series entitled "Making Good Use of Forty Days"]

Elijah the prophet had just won a great victory for the Lord over the prophets of Baal and Asherah; in the contest on Mt. Carmel, God had, in response to Elijah’s simple request, rained down fire from heaven while the Canaanite God Baal, in response to the fervent entreaties of his prophets, had done nothing. In a contest of God and Elijah against 850 false prophets, it had been no contest: the 850 didn’t stand a chance against those two.

But when Jezebel, the Baal-worshiping queen of Israel, sent word to Elijah that she would have him killed by high noon the next day, he high-tailed it out of town as quickly as he could. He fled to Beer-sheba, which would be like one of us fleeing to Key West—it was about as far as he could go and still be in the country. And then he went a little farther.

Exhausted and depressed, Elijah sat down under a broom tree in the middle of the wilderness and asked God to take his life. He fell asleep and was awakened by an angel; by God’s grace there was food and water for him, so he ate, drank, and went back to sleep. The angel awakened him again, this time telling him, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” So he ate, and then “he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God,” which was where God had established the covenant with Israel through Moses.

Elijah’s walk with God to that point had been challenging, exhilarating, and dangerous, as all walks with God are; now he had a long way to go to get to the place where God needed him to be and where he needed to be. He needed nourishment that would power his journey and he got it from food that was specially provided for him by God. Actually, though, the strength came from God himself; God worked through the food to give Elijah what he needed for his forty-day pilgrimage through the wilderness.

We marvel at Elijah going forty days in the strength gained from one meal; we also marvel at Jesus feeding 5000 people with what amounted to a $4.99 fish dinner from Captain D’s and having twelve baskets full of leftovers. Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 got people’s attention (naturally) which led them to pursue him all the way to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. When they found him, Jesus instigated a discussion with them about bread from heaven. He told them, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (John 6:27) and “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35) and “I am the living bread come down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51).

Jesus then went on to say, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink” (John 6:53-55).

This sounds very much like Lord’s Supper language, doesn’t it? Carlo Carretto, writing about Elijah’s meal and subsequent long journey, said, “This food given to Elijah on the edge of the desert may be seen as the symbol of a food which is to nourish man: The Blessed Sacrament” (The God Who Comes, p. 36). When we eat the Lord’s Supper today, let’s let it remind us that we are fed by God what we need for eternal life. But with what does God feed us? As Carretto also said, “This bread from heaven is God himself” (p. 34). Partaking of the Lord’s Supper reminds us that the nourishment that gives us real life is God himself.

Now, what does it mean to “eat the flesh” and to “drink the blood” of Jesus? What does it mean to consume the life of God? It’s not Christmastime but perhaps you will forgive me an illustration drawn from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” As you will recall, George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart), has had a terrible day that plunges him into great despair which leads him into conflict with his own wife and children and finally to ponder the possibility of suicide. The angel Clarence, upon hearing George say that he wishes he’d never been born, lets him see what the world would have been like without him. When the vision is over and George goes home, he bounds to the top of the stairs where his children await him and he covers them with kisses saying, “I could eat you up!”

This is personal and intimate relationship language. To say that we eat the body and drink the blood of Christ means that we join our life to his life; it is to say that we enter into the closest and most intimate relationship we can imagine.

We have a long way to go. How long? Well, our journey goes all the way through this life and then, in the resurrection, into the life beyond.

For such a journey, only the nourishment offered by God will suffice …

“O taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Psalm 34:8)

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Moses: Forty Days of Restoration

(A sermon based on Deuteronomy 10:1-5, 10-11 for the 2nd Sunday in Lent 2014)

[Note: during Lent I am preaching a series called "Making Good Use of Forty Days." This is the second sermon in the series.]

The Book of Deuteronomy is cast in the form of a farewell address of Moses to the people that he had led out of captivity in Egypt and through a forty year-long sojourn in the wilderness. The narrative setting of Deuteronomy is on the plains of Moab on the eastern side of the Jordan River where the people are encamped as they prepare to at long last enter the Promised Land. Moses leads the people who are about to enter the land in a covenant renewal ceremony, reminding them that the covenant that God had established with their ancestors forty years ago at Mt. Sinai was also a covenant that God had made with them and that the relationship God has established with them forty years earlier was still in place.

So Moses walked them back through what had happened all those years ago.

What had happened?

Well, after the people had come out of Egypt, Moses led them to Mt. Sinai. There, he spent forty days and forty nights on the mountain in the presence of the Lord; during that time the Lord gave Moses the content of the covenant including, most famously, the Ten Commandments that were written with the finger of God on two stone tablets. At the end of the forty days, though, God told him that the people were already violating the covenant by worshiping an idol; God furthermore told him that he would destroy the people and start over with Moses; Moses would be, in effect, a new Noah and Abraham combined.

When Moses went back down the mountain he found it as the Lord said he would; the people were sinning by worshiping an idol. Moses threw down the tablets, shattering them; his action symbolized that their covenant relationship with God, which had barely gotten underway, had been broken. The very real possibility that loomed over the people was that it had been broken forever.

To put it succinctly: the people had sinned; they had been unfaithful to the God who had delivered them from bondage and who intended to give them freedom. And they had done so right out of the gate, like a race car blowing its engine right after the starting flag dropped. Now what? Were they destined to wander around the wilderness until they died? Would they have to return to slavery in Egypt?

Do such questions ever occur to us?

The Christian life is an interesting and challenging pilgrimage with many ups and downs and many twists and turns. Whether we’re at the beginning of our walk with Christ, in the middle of it, or toward the end, we are prone to sin against God; as the hymn puts it, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it—prone to leave the God I love.” It happens to us all in all kinds of ways. Sometimes we think about something a long time, conclude that it’s wrong, and then do it anyway. Sometimes we transgress on the spur of the moment. Sometimes we get to feeling very secure in our relationship with God and our pride causes us to fall. Sometimes we get very lackadaisical in our relationship with God and our carelessness leads us to slip. It is, for those who pay attention to themselves, very frustrating. Sometimes we feel like screaming the words of Paul: “Wretched person that I am!”

But it wasn’t over for the Hebrews and it isn’t over for us.

God summoned Moses back to the mountain where Moses spent another forty days in the presence of the Lord. There, God re-wrote and re-established the covenant with the people, even to the point of writing the Ten Commandments on two new tablets that Moses had carved.

When we sin, we need to spend time before the Lord getting our relationship with God re-established and re-oriented to the new situation created by the reality of our sin. Now, it was Moses who went back to the mountain as the representative of the people and you can believe me when I say that your pastors spend time before the Lord interceding on your behalf. Now, though, because of the direct access to God we have through the death of Christ our Lord, we all have the responsibility to go before God for ourselves. But we also, because of the priesthood that is ours through Christ our Lord, have the privilege and responsibility of going before God for each other.

After God’s great saving act in the Exodus, Moses spent forty days on the mountain receiving the covenant.

After the people’s great sin, Moses spent an additional forty days on the mountain having the covenant restored and interceding with God for the people.

Here is a good use of forty days (or for however many days it takes): let’s take our own and each other’s relationship with God seriously enough to want to grow in that relationship, even when it means facing up to our sins and failures and to God’s great grace, and enough to want to intercede fervently for each other before God.

Moses had to go back to the mountain; it is good for us to go back to the cross. We need to remember how far God went to set us free and, when we live as if it doesn’t matter, we need to go back to the cross to remind ourselves just what is at the heart of our relationship with God.

Yes, sometimes we, like Paul find ourselves crying out, “Wretched person that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

When we find ourselves asking that question, let’s remember Paul’s answer: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

If the people’s relationship with God was to be restored, Moses had to return to Mt. Sinai.

If our relationship with God is to be restored, we have to return to Mt. Calvary …

Noah: Forty Days of Rescue

(A sermon based on Genesis 7:1-17 & 1 Peter 3:18-22 for the 1st Sunday in Lent 2014)

[Note: during Lent 2014 I am preaching a series called "Making Good Use of Forty Days." This is the first sermon in the series.]

We can focus on the death and destruction, on the terrible and the negative—and there is plenty to focus on.

Let’s spend today—and let’s spend these 40 days of Lent—focusing on God’s rescue of us from the terrible and from the destructive. After all, in the story of the great flood, we see God showing mercy to Noah and his family. In this day and time, God shows mercy to us.

God rescued Noah because Noah was “righteous.” Generally speaking, in the Bible to be “righteous” is to be in a sound relationship with God. In what ways was Noah righteous?

First, Noah walked with God. If Noah was righteous, he walked with God, because righteous people walk with God. It is said of Enoch, the other righteous person in Genesis 1-11, that he walked with God. Such walking with God is something that one does over the course of a lifetime; Noah had been walking with God for 500 years when he got the call to build the ark.

Second, Noah valued human life. Genesis 1-11 characterizes the growth of unrighteousness among the human race as being characterized by a steadily increasing disregard for the lives of others. That disregard can be said to culminate in the attitude of Lamech that is described in his own words in Genesis 4:23-24. If the devaluing of life characterizes unrighteousness then the valuing of life characterizes righteousness.

Third, Noah listened to God. Noah never says a word in the Genesis telling of his story. Perhaps we can conclude from this fact that one key to a right relationship with God is to listen to God much more than we talk to God. Indeed, it is generally true that we should talk less and listen more.

Fourth, Noah obeyed God. As Agnes Norfleet said,

Noah became obedient to a task perhaps more outrageous and more long-lasting than anything asked of anyone else in the Bible. He spent 120 years building a ship in a place where there was no great body of water for hundreds of miles. He did the unthinkable without objection or doubt, because he knew and loved God through many years of living in close union with him (“Noah: A Long Obedience,” in the Renovare Study Bible, p. 28).

Fifth, Noah trusted God. To hear and obey like Noah heard and obeyed requires very great faith.

None of this is easy. Who knows whether anyone besides God even noticed? But what difference does it make if anyone besides God noticed?

We can curse the destruction or we can build an ark; it’s better to build an ark than to curse the destruction.

I have leadership responsibilities with several organizations, each of which is in the ark-building business. I serve as Board Chair of Morningstar Children and Family Services, which sees the flood of mentally challenged children and rather than curse the flood, builds an ark. I serve as Board President of Fitzgerald/Ben Hill County Chapter of Habitat for Humanity, which sees the flood of sub-standard housing and rather than curse the flood, builds an ark. I serve as President of the Fitzgerald Rotary Club, which sees the flood of polio and meningitis and rather than curse the flood, builds and ark. I serve on the Hospital Authority Board of Dorminy Medical Center, which sees the flood of our underserved local population and rather than curse the flood, builds an ark.

All of these organizations in their own way are building an ark. All of them provide means of rescue from the destruction that is happening all around us.

Then there is the Church. Paul compared the deliverance of Noah and his family through water to our deliverance through the water of baptism. The comparison is a general one and the parallels are not to be pressed but it is important: participation in Christ through living the baptized life is the means of rescue that God has provided for us. The baptized life is the ark that saves us; it is also the ark whose door is still open (unlike the door on Noah’s ark, which God closed).

So … how can you make good use of forty days? You can make good use of forty days by (1) celebrating your own rescue and (2) helping others be rescued.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Letters to the Seven Churches: Smyrna (Revelation 2:8-11)

(Third in a series on the Book of Revelation)

Smyrna was a city with a very long history. In fact, there is now a major Turkish city on the site. During its long history, the city had known many setbacks that had been overcome, such as destruction by war and earthquake. Always, though, the city had bounced back. So, the opening line of the letter could have resonated with the citizens of Smyrna: “These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life.” They lived in a city that had a way of coming back to life! Of course, the reference is to Jesus Christ, who as “the first and the last” is sovereign over history and is working his purposes out, and who as the one “who was dead and came to life” reigns as resurrected Lord. As we will see, the fact that they served a risen Lord would be very reassuring to the Christians of Smyrna.

This is one of two letters among the seven that contains no words of criticism but only words of commendation, the other being the letter to Philadelphia. The main positive thing said about the church at Smyrna is that they were bearing up well under persecution. Let us look at the rest of the letter line by line to see what the Lord says through John about this subject.

“I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich.” Encouragement comes from knowing that the Lord knows what you’re going through. He speaks as one who had known affliction and who had lived through it with a true sense of purpose. The Christians at Smyrna were being persecuted and they were suffering greatly. Why does John say what he does about their poverty? Generally speaking, most early converts to Christianity seem to have come from lower socio-economic levels. But that probably has little to do with what John is saying here. The poverty of these people would have been directly related to their being persecuted. Perhaps they were experiencing economic boycott because of their faith. No doubt it was hard to make any advancement and hard to make a good living when such success depended on being a good citizen and the Christians could not be good citizens in Smyrna.

Why would I say that? Because Smyrna was a hotbed of emperor worship. Actually, Smyrna’s fascination with Rome went back even farther than the office of emperor in Rome. Around 200 BCE, Smyrna had erected a temple to the goddess Roma. The city had fervent devotion to the emperor, who in the time of the writing of Revelation was Domitian. Civic pride existed in abundance in Smyrna, and that pride was associated with devotion to Rome. Christians could not swear allegiance to the emperor as divine, and so they would suffer economically. Still, the Lord through John affirms that in their poverty the Christians are rich. They had wealth that came from knowing the Lord and from having salvation. The most materially wealthy person in the world who did not know the Lord was poor compared to them.

“I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” This is very harsh language, and no Christian should see such language as a license to practice anti-Semitism. We must remember the context. In the early years of the Christian movement the church was considered a sect of Judaism. Judaism was an accepted religion within the Roman Empire. However, as time passed and Christianity became more and more distinct from Judaism, Christians came under more and more suspicion. Apparently in Smyrna, some Jews were all too happy to see the Christians persecuted. They would have regarded Christianity as a false religion. New Testament writers regard people of faith as the true Israel. That is why John could say that these people “say that they are Jews and are not”; for John a true Jew would be someone who had faith in God’s Messiah, Jesus Christ. The phrase “synagogue of Satan” would arise from the active persecution of Christians that was encouraged by some Jews in Smyrna. It is a very precise and limited designation, then.

“Do not fear what you are about to suffer.” Notice that the Lord does not say, “Do not fear because you are not going to suffer.” He affirms that they will in fact suffer, but they are to have courage in the face of suffering. It is a non-Christian idea that God’s people do not suffer or experience tribulation. Following Christ likely means suffering, and faithful Christianity means faithful suffering.

“Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction.” Again, notice the affirmation that imprisonment is in fact coming for some of them. The imprisonment is for the purpose of testing. Somehow, God can use the actions of Satan and of evil people to work for our good, for the faith of the true Christian is refined and made stronger by affliction and persecution. What is the significance of the “ten days?” Some commentators believe that it is a reference to the ten days that Daniel and his companions ate their own food rather than the emperor’s food; their allegiance was to God rather than to the Babylonian Empire. Others believe that the connection should not be over-emphasized. They would say that John is simply stating that the persecution, while inevitable, will be short-lived. Others speculate on the basis of some ancient inscriptions that arena language is being used, which would underscore the possibility of their death in an arena. In either case, they were definitely going to be tested.

“Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” In most cases, the Romans imprisoned someone as a prelude to capital punishment.
Death was a real possibility for those Christians who were arrested. Smyrna was built on the “crown” of a hill, and that picture may be in mind here. More likely is the notion of the athletic competitions; the victor would receive a laurel wreath as a crown to signify his victory. The meaning is that because of their persevering faithfulness, the Christians at Smyrna would have everlasting life.

“Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.” The first death is our physical death. The second death would be spiritual death, which is biblical language for the eternal separation from God that awaits those who serve Satan and self rather than God. It may be that some Jews were taunting the Christians with the idea that God would punish them in that way; John assures them that they will not.

I think that the main idea I would want us to take away from this letter is that we must be willing to embrace suffering for the sake of being faithful to Christ. Suffering that comes on us for our faithfulness serves to make us even stronger and more faithful. The question is how does such suffering come to us in our setting now? It is clear how it comes to those who are being persecuted in other nations; it is about the same for them as it was for Christians in Smyrna 2000 years ago. But how does it come to us? And if it ever did in blatantly oppressive ways, how many of us would be faithful and would endure to the end?