21 January 2018

Jonah's Surprise

Third Sunday after Epiphany

One thing's for sure, the God revealed in the Bible is always full of surprises.  Just when we think we have God figured out, God does something, God says something, God decides something that transfigures everything.  God is the God of the unexpected, who relishes newness and delights in doing a new thing (Isaiah 43:19).  And there are so many stories in scripture that remind us, as well, that the God of Abraham and Sarah and Jesus Christ is complex, rich in paradox, full of mystery, and swimming in nuance.

Consider the prophet Jonah.  We know the story well—maybe too well.  First, there’s no reference to a whale. We’re told that Jonah was swallowed by a “large fish” (Jonah 1:17).  He’s running from his call, running from God.  God sent him to cry out against the “wickedness” of Nineveh.  The city was enormous.  The ancient remains of Nineveh, near Mosul, Iraq, situated between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, include the old ramparts that go around the city for 7.5 miles. It was an old city. The area was originally settled around 6000 BCE.  It was “an exceedingly large city, a three-day’s walk across” (Jonah 3:3)—which is an exaggeration.  It’s the Bible’s way of saying that it was big—with a reputation.

And Jonah has no desire to go there.  He ignores God’s command and escapes on a ship that then gets caught in a storm.  The sailors blame Jonah, they assume that God is punishing them because of his sin.  He offers to jump overboard.  Yahweh provides a fish, which becomes Jonah’s home for three days. Living in the smelly belly of a fish gives him plenty of time to think things over and repent.  Then, we’re told, Yahweh “spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land” (Jonah 2:10).  The Hebrew actually reads, the fish “vomited” Jonah upon dry land.  All of this happens in chapters one and two of Jonah.

Then we have in 3:1, “The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time,” which leads us to think that the story continues.  But not really.  Scholars have shown that chapters one and two are one story; chapters three and four are another story. The link between them is Jonah and Nineveh and the persistence of God’s call to Jonah the prophet.[1]  There’s a scene in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, a symbolic fantasy exploring America during the AIDS epidemic, in which an angel is sent to one of the characters, Prior Walker, to tell him that he is really a prophet of God. Prior resists, he says he’s not; he says, I’m “a sick, lonely man.”  But the angel says, “You can’t outrun your occupation, Jonah. Hiding from me one place you will find me in another.”[2]  There’s no hiding.

In chapter three, Jonah concedes and goes to Nineveh.  But now he has to face a different set of challenges.  This time he’s not swallowed by a fish, but swallowed, as it were, by this “great city” —and eventually swallowed by grace. What happens there both surprises Jonah and infuriates him.  For he has much to learn about being a prophet, he has much to learn about the nature of Yahweh.

Stay close to the text, for things are not what they seem.  Yahweh says, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I will tell you” (Jonah 3:2).  So Jonah goes to Nineveh.  He enters the city, a day’s walk, and then cries out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4)!  Jonah warns this wicked city.

But Jonah completely misjudges, completely miscalculates the situation.  He makes assumptions about the city, and about God.  What Jonah doesn’t know is that while this city might have a reputation, this exceedingly great city is great to God. In Hebrew, being “great to God,” suggests divine ownership, divine favor, and divine presence. And God has God’s own plans for city of Nineveh.

Jonah is sent to proclaim a message from Yahweh.  But did you notice that Yahweh never actually gives a message?  Jonah begins to speak, but is it really the word of the Lord?  This word of warning, assuming God’s judgment and complete annihilation is Jonah’s, it’s not from God.  When prophets speak in other prophetic works, such as in Isaiah or Amos, we often find the prophet saying, “the word of the Lord,” or “thus says the Lord,” followed by the message.  These qualifiers are missing.  We just have Jonah’s words.  And, unlike other prophetic utterances, Jonah fails to say why Nineveh will be overthrown.

But the people of Nineveh believe his message—his false message—nevertheless!  And, then, to his utter amazement and disappointment, the entire city proclaims a fast, its citizen put on sackcloth, and they examine themselves—they take a deep, honest look at their sin.  They do all of this because the people “believed God.”  Now, the Hebrew word for God here is Elohim, which is a plural noun, meaning “gods” or “deity.”  In other words, it’s a generic word for God. They believe in Elohim, a generic god, but not Yahweh—and it’s clearly Yahweh who sent Jonah to them, with a special word. This city doesn’t really know Yahweh, yet they are “great,” special to Yahweh.

Then the king hears what’s going on.  He, too, puts on sackcloth and sits in ashes and examines his sins and the sins of the people.  He joins the people in an act of repentance, confession, acknowledging the sins oppressing the people, sins which they believe anger God.  As king, he’s concerned for the welfare of the kingdom, he does what is best for them.  He wants to identify the evil within himself and among them.  He’s not afraid to name evil, evil.  Everyone must fast, including fasting from water.  Even the herds and flocks need to repent. They, too, shall not drink; they, too, must wear sackcloth. I’m not sure what the animals did wrong, but obviously they need repentance! Humans and animals, together, enter a time of corporate confession.  A good leader leads a people to acknowledge sin and wrong and evil, and not run from it, not deny or make excuses or blame other people. A good leader leads with humility and fears the righteous judgment of God.

The king puts all of this in a formal proclamation and says, “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change God’s mind; God may turn from God’s fierce anger, so that we do not perish” (Jonah 3:8b-9).  Who knows? Who knows?  The Hebrew is actually closer to, “God may relent and change God’s mind…God may relent from the burning of his nostrils.” Who knows?

In verse 10, we read, “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed God’s mind about the calamity that God had said he would bring upon them; and God did not do it.”  This is confusing, I know, because God never says God will bring calamity upon them; those are Jonah’s words.  And it makes it look as if God, like Jonah, was really eager to judge and destroy them, but had a change of mind when the people repented.  But is this really how it works?  Do we get to change God’s mind? Do we get to control God’s actions?  Was God only motivated to change God’s mind, to repent of what God was about to do, because Nineveh got its act together? Is the moral universe really built on cause and effect?   What about grace?

It’s complicated—it always is.  And English does a disservice to the Hebrew.  Phyllis Trible, one of the great biblical scholars of our age, who taught Hebrew Bible at Union Theological Seminary in New York for many years, bemoans that both the NRSV and the NIV translations obscure what’s happening here.  The people of Nineveh turn, repent, and change their ways, and God turns—but they’re not part of the same turning.  This is critical.  The Hebrew word used to describe Nineveh’s turn away from evil is not the same word used to describe Yahweh’s turn from judgment to mercy.  “Although mutual acts by the Ninevites and God eradicate evil, they turn on separate verbs.  In other words, God’s response comes on God’s terms.”[3]  It cannot be forced or manipulated.  As Jonah came to discover, God does not do evil—even when the people are evil and deserve judgment.

So what does Jonah do when he discovers that Yahweh is gracious?  We read, “But this was displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry” (Jonah 4:1). The Hebrew is even stronger, “and it was evil to Jonah an evil great…,” and “it burned him.”  He’s burning up.  Jonah’s furious.  The story ends with Yahweh saying to Jonah, “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals” (John 4:11)?  That’s how it ends.  The city was obviously overrun with unruly animals! 

Whoever wrote Jonah—and scholars have no idea who wrote it or where—the guy had a sense of humor.  He—assuming the author was a he—was also a sophisticated theologian.  He offers a nuanced understanding of our relationship with God.  We learn that God is concerned with people we least suspect are deemed “great” in God’s eyes.  God’s ways are not our ways, so we must resist judging too quickly.  We have to be very careful how we listen to those who speak on God’s behalf, because sometimes what is heard from prophets is not coming from God, but from the prophet’s ego.  We need to be cautious about saying what God is or isn’t doing.  God’s ways are not our ways.  And we also discover that “we are always coming in on something that is already going on.”[4] We’re always entering into something that God is doing, into something that is already happening, already going on, which precedes us.  We need to act with humility and openness.

We also learn the value of corporate confession, in addition to individual confession.  We need to confess collective or systemic or national guilt and sin—which is almost unheard of these days.  We learn the importance of having people in leadership, people called to care for the welfare of all God’s people, who place their actions and the actions of the collective before the light of God’s judgment.  This all sounds quaint these days, something out of Never Neverland, but it reflects just how far we have fallen in our age.  Jesus actually praised the people of Nineveh and gave them the right to judge his own generation, because at least they repented.  His generation could not see “something greater than Jonah” in Jesus (Matthew 12:38-41).

There’s much to take-away from this remarkable story, much to explore.  Most of all, we probably learn: don’t be like Jonah. Be careful that you don’t succumb to evil.   And don’t be surprised by God’s grace and mercy, and don’t be angry—yes, it’s okay to be angry, and, perhaps we need to be more angry about so much in the world these days—but don’t be angry when God is being gracious.  Be open to surprises. Be open to grace. Be open for the new thing. For, God loves—loves, loves, loves—to astonish us!


[1] I’m grateful to Dr. Phyllis Trible, whose Jonah scholarship has informed my reading of the text, and this sermon.  See Phyllis Trible, “The Book of Jonah,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible – Volume IV. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 463ff.
[2] Tony Kushner, Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika (New York: Theatre Communications Group, Inc., 1994), 104.
[3] Trible, 514-515.
[4] This is Eugene Peterson’s insight in Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Press, 1992), 128.

14 January 2018


Second Sunday after Epiphany

There was a time when people expected to hear the voice of God.  There was a time when visions and visitations, epiphanies were common. It was rare to hear a word from Yahweh in Eli's day.  Revelation had become a thing of the past.  Samuel and Eli and others were living from, living off of earlier epiphanies, earlier visions, earlier encounters with the Living God, not from anything new. They did not expect to hear a fresh word from the Lord.

Look at Eli the priest, a member of the religious establishment, tending to the religious practices required of him; he's lighting candles, keeping watch over the ark of the covenant, preserving the rituals of the sanctuary in Shiloh, this dwelling place of Yahweh. How could one even sleep there, as if next to an active volcano?  Yet, that thought doesn’t seem to trouble Eli.  We find him asleep.  Granted, he needs to sleep (we all do).  But here, sleep is the setting for what happens next.  Sleep takes on symbolic meaning, pointing to something else. Does Eli represent the person who’s fallen asleep before the presence of God?  Yawning before Yahweh?  Bored?  It seems as if Eli served with little expectation that Yahweh would actually speak or move.

It’s while they are both asleep—sleep, when the ego relinquishes its control to the depths of the unconscious—that Yahweh chooses to speak, to speak when they least expect it, to speak when their ego defenses are down, for that’s when Yahweh is most likely to be heard. At night, in a dream state, outside conventional, ordinary, waking experience—that’s when Samuel is available for a word from the LORD.

“Samuel!  Samuel!”  Was it a shout?  A whisper?  Was it a dream? How did Samuel first hear his name?  He didn’t know it was Yahweh.  He assumed it was Eli calling, no different from other nights, no doubt, when Eli, poor of sight, might have called out for help. “Eli, here I am,” he said.  It’s remarkable that, even though they’re both before the dwelling place of Yahweh, it never dawns on them that God is speaking, there’s no expectation that the voice is God’s. They both assume that God is silent.

And so, Samuel runs to Eli.  “Here I am, for you called me.”  Eli says, “I didn’t call you; go back to sleep.”  So he went back to bed. The Lord calls again, “Samuel!  Samuel!”  So, Samuel gets up and goes to Eli and says again, “Here I am, for you called me.”  Eli says again, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.”  So, Samuel went back to bed.

We’re told that even though Samuel slept in the temple, the ward of Eli, “Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him” (1 Samuel 3:7).  This is a remarkable piece of information.  Samuel is unfamiliar with the voice of God; he’s unfamiliar with the presence of God. So there was no way for Samuel to recognize the voice or the movement of God in his life because they hadn’t been formally introduced, as it were.  Recognition is not possible without cognition.  That is, you cannot know again (re-cognize) without first having known.  And Samuel had no prior knowledge of God.  Surely, he knew about Yahweh, but that’s not the same as knowing God, as having an experience of God, as encountering Yahweh—there’s a world of difference between the two.

A third time the voice of Yahweh speaks to Samuel.  And for a third time he goes to Eli and says, probably frustrated at this point, “Here I am, for you called me.” It’s only then that Eli begins to awake from his own spiritual slumber.  You can almost imagine him slowly beginning to realize what’s happening.  Yahweh might have been silent for a long time, but Eli still knew enough about Yahweh, knew about Yahweh’s style to recognize a visitation when it occurs.

“Go,” Samuel, “lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.”  And so, Samuel obeyed, he “went and laid down in his place.”  In time Yahweh returned and “stood there,” the text said, “calling as before, ‘Samuel!  Samuel!’”  But this time he was ready. “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.”  Was it a shout?  A whisper, offered with trepidation? Then Yahweh began to speak to Samuel and he listened.

Innocently, even naively, Samuel opened himself up to the voice of Yahweh.  The lectionary reading for today ends at verse 10. Continue reading and you’ll see what is said to Samuel, something he didn’t expect to here.  Samuel discovers God’s impending judgment against the house of Eli, against the blasphemies of Eli’s sons.  The message Samuel receives is difficult, abrasive, and devastating.  As you can imagine, he was afraid to tell Eli what he saw and heard.  But Samuel told him everything.  He had to.

This, my friends, is how prophets are born—or called or formed.  The text says, “As Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground” (1 Sam. 3:19).  Samuel was obedient to what he heard and saw.  He beholden to the Voice.  He had to be.  He had no choice. The first task of the prophet is not to foretell the future.  The first task of the prophet is to listen to the voice of God and then speak to the people, not what the people want to hear, and not what the prophet wants to say, but what the prophet has to say, is compelled to say, is called to say.  This is also a good description of how ministers are called and a good description of the life of a preacher and how sermons are formed.  What the prophet says is for the sake of the people because it’s for the sake of God and God is on the side of the people.

All of this was a lot for Samuel to take in.  Called to be a prophet at age twelve.  It's lot for anyone to experience. It’s risky, scary.  Anything can happen when we open ourselves up, when we make ourselves available to God.  Perhaps, this is why many are reluctant to open themselves up to God, reluctant to pray, reluctant to listen because we might hear God speak, God might actually address us, we might be summoned. We shouldn’t be surprised, really, because the Bible is replete with call stories, people—unlikely people, surprising people—summoned to serve God in a variety of ways. 

And do you know what?  God is still calling us, if we will but listen.

I love the tagline of the United Church of Christ, part of an evangelism campaign they developed several years ago: God is still speaking.  (I wish the Presbyterian Church had something similar.) Do you believe God is still speaking today?  Do we live with the expectation that God is still seeking us, still trying to appear, still trying to get a word to us? Can you recognize the Voice that summons you in the middle of the night?  

I believe that God is still speaking, still calling, still acting, still summoning us into life.  And in order for us to discover what God is saying, in order to discover God’s will for our lives, we need to listen.  We need to say, “Speak, Lord.”  And then listen.

Listening is tough, I know. But if you think about it, isn’t listening a form of love?  Love invites us to listen.  To really listen to someone, both for what is said and isn’t said and what is trying to be said, is a profound act of love.  So much damage is done, so much pain and sorrow and sin because we refuse to listen to one another, or to God, or to ourselves.  Failing to listen is a failure of love.  Theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) put it simply, beautifully, “love listens.”  When we choose to love someone, we listen.[1]  We listen, because we love.  This is true in our relationship with others, and ourselves; it’s also true in our relationship with God.  We express our love for God when we listen.

And listening, like loving someone, is also risky, because it requires being open, receiving something new, discovering something new, something we don’t already know.  Learning something new might require giving up what we formerly knew or assumed to be true.  When Samuel opened himself up to the Lord, he opened himself up to a wisdom beyond or outside his limited scope of knowing. He listened for a voice that spoke to him from beyond his ego.  Samuel discovered his vocation as a prophet, his reason for being, because he listened.  He wasn’t hoping to be a prophet, that wasn’t part of his career plan. It never is. I have never met anyone who said, “I always knew I wanted to be a prophet one day.” Samuel was called.  As Parker J. Palmer writes in his book Let Your Life Speak, “Vocation doesn’t come from willfulness.  It comes from listening.”  That’s why Palmer wisely says, “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.” [2] Palmer helpfully, and correctly, makes the distinction between what our egos want—often success, happiness, wealth, security, achievements—and what the soul really desires.

And what the soul, or what Thomas Merton (1915-1968), the Catholic mystic, called “true self,” really desires is to be summoned and placed in service to something infinitely larger than itself.  The soul wants to be in service to the will of God!  The soul longs to be in service to love, in service to beauty! The soul longs to be in service to healing, in service to justice!  Our souls really want to be summoned, we want to be called, and, I believe, we are being called because God is still speaking—and what we’re being called to is, very often, at odds with the wishes of our fearful, small egos. But we must not be afraid. God is on our side.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) knew this. Preacher, prophet, reformer, agitator, yes, to be sure. All that he said was challenging to hear (then and now), although, now that we have a national holiday in his name, his message has been domesticated and tamed and reduced to inspiring quotes on Facebook or bumper stickers. King challenged this nation and the Church to live up to its own ideals and vision, to live out its calling.  He was not popular in his day, especially among white Christians.  So, how did King become King?  How did he become a prophet and preacher?  God spoke to him.

King did not seek black leadership in the civil rights movement. He was asked to take it on and it nearly overwhelmed him with fear.  The fear came to a feverish pitch on the night of January 27, 1956, in the early weeks of the Montgomery bus boycott.  He received a telephone call at midnight, threatening to blow up his house if he did not leave in three days.  Later, he said that call created a “spiritual midnight” for him, as he thought about his life, his wife, and newborn baby girl.  Fear drove him out of his bed to the kitchen table, to pray.  Praying “out loud,” pleading, wrestling with God he said, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right…But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now, I’m faulting, I’m losing my courage.”  And then in the midst of the prayer, “almost out of nowhere,” he heard a voice saying to him: “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness.  Stand up for justice.  Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even to the end of the world.”

Three nights after the call, King’s house was bombed.  King was at a boycott meeting. His wife and daughter escaped unharmed; they moved to the back of the house when they heard something land on the porch.  Later, King said, “I accepted the word of the bombing calmly.  My religious experience a few nights before [in the kitchen] had given me the strength to face it.”    When an angry crowd of blacks gathered with guns ready for revenge, King stopped them and said, “We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence.  We must meet violence with non-violence…We must love our white brothers no matter what they do to us.  We must make them know that we love them.” 

Almost a year to the day of his kitchen experience, twelve sticks of dynamite were discovered unexploded on his porch.  Later, on the anniversary of his kitchen experience, King shared in a sermon how God removed his fear.  God gave him a vision in the kitchen that changed his life. “So,” King preached, “I’m not afraid of anybody this morning.  Tell Montgomery they can keep shooting and I’m going to stand up to them; tell Montgomery they can keep bombing and I’m going to stand up to them.  If I had to die tomorrow morning I will die happy because I’ve been to the mountain top and I’ve seen the promised land and it’s going to be here in Montgomery.”[3]

* * *

Prophets aren’t the only ones summoned to listen to God. We’re not all called to be prophets.  But God is still calling, still speaking. By virtue of your baptism, you are called.  And we’re all called to listen, throughout our lives, for the voice calling our name. Maybe it’s a voice that whispers in your ear at midnight or a voice that shakes the foundation—either way, it’s a voice that wants to change your life. And sometimes it’s the choir calling you by name.

One of my favorite movies is the film adaptation of Alice Walker’s book, The Color Purple.  A favorite scene occurs one Sunday morning at worship in a small country church.  Someone in the congregation asks the choir to sing, “God is trying to tell you something.”  The voices of the choir are heard some distance away at the local juke joint.  Shug Avery, a singer at the club, is first to hear the faint echoes of the choir, and then the others who are dancing and drinking hear it too.  Shug is summoned by the choir, she leads the way out of the club, and then everyone else there follows her down the dirt road to the church.  They’re called home to worship, into the church, and together sing with congregation and choir in a call and response, back and forth, “God is trying to tell you something” and “Oh, speak Lord, speak to me.”  Back and forth, they sing.  “God is trying to tell you something” and “Oh, speak Lord, speak to me.” “Speak, to me!”  “God is trying to tell you something right now, right now, right now.”  Right now!  And then everything is resolved with them singing, together, “Thank you, Lord.  Thank you, Lord.  Thank you.”[4] 

“Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”  We need to awake from our spiritual slumber.  We need to wake up and listen and then follow wherever the Voice wants to send us.  Yes, I know, there’s so much in our lives that wants to lull us to sleep and keep us asleep.  But I also know there’s much more that wants to come to life through us.  The good news is that there’s so much that wants to come into the world through you and me!  There’s so much of God’s love and grace and beauty and righteousness and truth and justice that desires to be brought into the world through you and me! This is what your soul wants to serve—a calling worthy of your soul.  It’s what the world needs, it’s what this nation desperately needs right now—for God’s people to listen for the call.  So, speak, Lord.  Speak.

[1] Paul Tillich, “The first duty of love is to listen,” attributed to Tillich.  The actual quote is, “In order to know what is just in a person-to-person encounter, love listens.  It is its first task to listen.”  Love, Power, and Justice: Ontological Analyses and Ethical Applications (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), 84
[2] Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999), 3-4.
[3] The significance of the “kitchen vision” for King is relayed in James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016), 77-800.
[4] From the film The Color Purple (Warner Brothers, 1985).