Saturday, January 19, 2013

2013 01 20 Sermon: Jonah, Part One: An Epiphany Rejected

2013 01 20 Sermon on Jonah, Part One: An Epiphany Rejected
(A NRSV translation of the Book is attached at the bottom of this sermon.)

This is the first Sunday of a brief three part series about a very brief book.  The book of the Prophet Jonah is but four short chapters long. It is a whopping good story; and it is a good story to study during Epiphany because God clear Epiphany was revealed to Jonah; and Jonah equally clearly rejected it. Which almost never happens, since prophets are supposed to, by definition, get with God’s program. Whatever else Jonah had he certainly had some nerve! And the upshot of that is that, in spite of God’s great efforts with him, Jonah would not have known an Epiphany had it crawled up his leg and bit him!

First, I want to share with you some thoughts about misunderstanding the Book of Jonah. Jonah is well worth some study because most of us do not have a clue as to what God is trying to teach us in this book, and what he is trying to teach us is both applicable and important to us.  The book is simple and straight forward which makes it a bit astonishing that so few practicing Christians or Jews actually understand it.  Hopefully, this brief series will put an end to that for you.

Unfortunately, if you are anything like me and the hundreds of students and parishioners I have taught about Jonah through the years, your ideas about Jonah have been warped by an almost exclusive focus on the first half of the book, and particularly by the idea that Jonah was swallowed by a "whale." And that particular understanding has been further distorted by Walt Disney's "Pinochio" and that very scary scene where the puppet-boy is chased and swallowed by a very menacing whale. So you may not know that the Bible says nothing about a whale that chased and swallowed Jonah, but the story actually tells of a "giant fish" that was sent by God to rescue Jonah!

And you may well have been subjected to one of those boring arguments about whether or not Jonah actually could have been swallowed by a whale, or whether or not that part of the story was a metaphor, or hyperbole, or fantasy: all of which are possible.  But there is no critical agreement on those options, so the spectrum runs from literally true to pure fantasy and picking one leads you no closer to understanding Jonah than you were when the argument started.

It usually helps to understand a story by having an idea about who wrote it, when, for whom, where, and others basic things that give us the sitz im liben, the "setting in life," of the story. For better or worse we don't know much about Jonah, but what we don't know helps because we have been mislead by well meaning scholars who did a lot of guessing about Jonah and forgot to tell us they were guessing.  We will straighten that out now.

We do know, from 2 Kings 14:25, that there actually was a prophet named "Jonah, the son of Amittai," who was active during the reign of King Jeroboam II.  And we know that Jeroboam II ruled early in the 8th Century, BC, from 786 to 746.  The Jonah in our story has exactly the same name as the prophet during Jeroboam's reign so we know the writer of the Book of Jonah wants us to believe the exploits of the Jonah in the story is the same man who served King Jeroboam II.  The problem is that we know next to nothing about the 40 year reign of Jeroboam II.  2 Kings tells us, "Jeroboam II restored the border of Israel from Lebo-Hamath as far as the sea of Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant, Jonah, son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-Heper."

From that we can infer that Jonah was in favor with the King to the point of being allowed to speak for the Lord during his reign.  So Jonah was a royal prophet, not some wandering prophet who was out of favor with the reigning monarch.  We know essentially nothing about when it was written.  It is written in the third person so, regardless what the author would like us to believe he is not Jonah, but someone writing about Jonah. and scholars have said it was written in the 8th, 7th, 6th, 5th, 4th and 3rd centuries, BC, so you can take you pick and not be "wrong."  What you can know is that at least one Biblical scholar got his PhD writing his dissertation defending each of those rough dates.

Perhaps more importantly, we don't know who did write the book, or why.  Nor do we know if it was written all at once by one author or a group of authors, or whether it was patched together from bits and pieces, perhaps over several centuries.  A good example of that question involves the prayer that Jonah prays to God while he is in the fish.  It is prayed in the form of a psalm, a poetic writing, wholly unlike the prose narrative of the rest of the book. In the prayer Jonah is both thankful and pious, completely different than the man described in the rest of the book. And once Jonah is spit out of the mouth of the fish Jonah becomes once again the familiar old grouchy, negative, defiant Jonah we have come to know, if not love.  This has led some to say that this prayer was inserted at a later date to make Jonah look a bit more orthodox, and a whole lot more likable.

We can say something pretty definitive about is who it was written for. We know that the author was an Israelite writing for other Israelites.  In other words, and this is important, the Book of Jonah was written by an insider for other insiders.  And as it has been handed down through the ages it is also written for today's insiders – us.  Of course others can learn much from it as well, but it is addressed to insiders and how those insiders feel when God chooses to treat even hated outsiders with compassion and mercy! Let me reiterate that: it addresses the question of how Insiders react when God decides to show compassion and mercy to Outsiders!

One of the ways we can be sure that this writer was an Israelite, and insider, is that the God referred to here is Yahweh, the God of Israel.  And when you know when God is called yahweh in a Biblical text you also know that the center of the story is NEVER about the human actors in the story; rather it is about God.  So, if you were to count the references to God in this short book you would find that God is mentioned 39 time in its 44 verses.  God is the center of this story from beginning to end.  God starts the story by calling Jonah, and ends it by telling Jonah what he already should have known: that God is a God of compassion and mercy, so get used to it!

We do know quite a bit about Nineveh.  It was located on the Tigris River in what is now northern Iraq.  It was truly a great city, large and prosperous long before most of the other cities of the middle east were important.  Under King Sennacherib it became the capital of Assyria at the end of the 8th century BC and remained so until the fall of that nation in 612 BC.

Israel hated the far superior military might of Assyria which ultimately conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC, leaving only Judah, and carrying most of the leaders of the northern kingdom off in chains to Ninevah.  This goes a long way towards understanding how the prophet could hate Ninevah. Ninevah was infamous in the eyes of the Israelites for its evil, debauchery, whoredom, thievery, treachery and cruelty.

The deep and bitter hatred of the Assyrians by the Israelites after the fall of the Northern Kingdom is why many scholars date the writing of the book as later than 722 BC, at least a third of a century after Jonah prophesied. There is no proof of this, but it is widely accepted as making sense.  Of course it is also likely that the Israelites had hated the Assyrians long before they invaded Israel.  Generally speaking, throughout Israel's history Israelites hated all nations that were bigger and stronger than little Israel and that sought to subjugate that tiny nation, either through war or by the insistence on the payment of tribute to avoid war. Regardless, what is very clear is that Jonah hated Ninevah and was none too happy with his God who had the audacity to ask Jonah to preach to them and warn them that God was about to punish them.  And, as we will see, Jonah would rather go to the end of the earth than to obey that instruction of God.

Next time we will look closely at the first two chapters of the book, the first half of the book actually, and begin to answer that great theological question that I insist we all ask: "So what?"  "So what?  What can Jonah and Ninevah possibly have to do with me over 2700 years later?"  The answer is, "A whole lot more than you may realize."  God bless.


The Book of Jonah, NRSV translation

Chapter One

1:1  Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, 2  "Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me." 3  But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.

4  But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. 5  Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. 6  The captain came and said to him, "What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish." 7  The sailors said to one another, "Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us." So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.

8  Then they said to him, "Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?" 9  "I am a Hebrew," he replied. "I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land." 10  Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, "What is this that you have done!" For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them so. 11  Then they said to him, "What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?" For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. 12  He said to them, "Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you."

13  Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them. 14  Then they cried out to the LORD, "Please, O LORD, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man's life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you." 15  So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. 16  Then the men feared the LORD even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.

17  But the LORD provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Chapter Two

2:1  Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, 2  saying, "I called to the LORD out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. 3  You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. 4  Then I said, 'I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?' 5  The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head 6  at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O LORD my God.

7  As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the LORD; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. 8  Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty. 9  But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the LORD!"

10  Then the LORD spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.

Chapter Three

3:1  The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2  "Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you." 3  So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across.

4  Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" 5  And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. 6  When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7  Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: "By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8  Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9  Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish."

10  When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Chapter Four

4:1  But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2  He prayed to the LORD and said, "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. 3  And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live."

4  And the LORD said, "Is it right for you to be angry?" 5  Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. 6  The LORD God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7  But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8  When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, "It is better for me to die than to live." 9  But God said to Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?" And he said, "Yes, angry enough to die."

10  Then the LORD said, "You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11  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?"

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

2013 01 13 Sermon Mark 1: 4-11, The Baptism of Jesus

Mark's was the first description of the baptism of Jesus written. It is the simplest, and it offers no explanation of the BIG question that Biblical Theologians like to debate endlessly: “If, as the Bible says, and the Church confirms, Jesus was without sin, why was he baptized by John?”  Mark doesn't answer that question, content to let God be God and accept the divine mystery. Mark was never burdened when he didn't understand everything about God. He didn’t expect to, and neither should we.

However, writing several years later, Matthew worries about it, and includes a sentence explaining that John was not happy being put in a position to have to baptize Jesus, to which Jesus replies, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness."  According to Matthew, that answer is good enough for John, and so he baptizes Jesus.

In any case, Jesus decided to be baptized by John, even though John was baptizing "for the forgiveness of sins" and not “to fulfill all righteousness,” whatever that means. And the Bible tells us that Jesus was without sin.  So Matthew doesn’t solve the question of why, but only adds another one: “What does “to fulfill all righteousness” mean? And there are dozens of ideas about that, and I am not going there in this sermon.

Rather, let’s stick to the question of why Jesus would want to be baptized by John. Now, it is possible, but just barely possible, that at that point in time, BEFORE he began his ministry he may not have known that he was sinless! God had not spoken directly to him as far as we know, and he was likely pretty hard on himself in terms of trying to be as good a person as he could be. So, that is a possible reason. But it raises a lot of questions about when Jesus was aware of who he was, his relationship to God before his baptism, and what his mission in life was to be. In other words, that answer, even more than Matthew’s answer, raises far more questions than it solves.

But, I believe, after many, many hours studying this issue, that Jesus may well have had another agenda than to wash away his sins. And that is that he was determined to set a proper example for all those who, like us, would come to be his disciples and would do our best to emulate him in our own lives. And I will discuss why I think that is the correct answer in a bit. But, the bottom line is that no one knows for certain why he let John baptize him, and probably never will. It is a mystery.

In any case, three of the four Gospel writers tell us that Jesus was, in fact, baptized by John, the Baptizer, and one Gospel writer, St. John the Evangelist, avoids the issue.  So, I think it is safe to say at the very least that John did, in fact, baptize Jesus; that the heavens were, in fact, torn open, that the Spirit did, in fact, descend on Jesus, and that He did, in fact, hear a voice saying that He was God's Son, in whom God was well pleased.

BUT, there is no indication that anyone else heard God’s voice; though, conceivably, they might have. If they did there is no indication that they ran around telling others about it who were not there. And since it would have been a startlingly miraculous event, I doubt that anyone but Jesus heard it, or we would have read more about what a fantastic revelation this was. So, the tearing of the heavens apart, the descent of the Holy Spirit, and the voice speaking to Jesus immediately after the baptism are all things that three of the Gospels say only Jesus saw and heard.  To everyone else who was there that day maybe nothing all that special appeared to be going on. Incidentally, this partially explains why Jesus’ disciples seem so dense for such a long time and unable to comprehend who Jesus is until well into his ministry.

Clearly, we now all have all this testimony as to what actually happened; because the Spirit obviously told Mark, Matthew and Luke to share this revelation with us in the Bible.  But, at the time it happened, it was a very private statement of the manifestation of God in the person of Jesus.  It was very much a private epiphany.  Now, it is not.  We all know what happened, even if we are a bit shaky on the details, and a lot shaky as to "why was Jesus baptized at all?"

So, let's look at Mark's text again.  It's the one that strips the scene to the bare essentials.
9  In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  10  And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  11  And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

That may look like a pretty innocent paragraph, but, believe me, folks, there is a lot of stuff going on there, in these so called "bare essentials" that give us information about this Epiphany: the manifestation of God in Jesus, the Christ.

Note, first, that the heavens are "torn apart."  In the Greek the word for "torn apart" is not a gentle word, and does not convey a gentle image such as we always see in the paintings of the sweet dove descending on Jesus. The word itself is violent: tearing, ripping, shredding -- powerful: the very heavens ripped open!  God sends the Spirit upon Jesus in power and glory!  Which, if you recall, was Isaiah's prayer, uttered 700 years before as he stood frustrated by the sin of the people, begging God: "Oh! That you would tear open the heavens and come down!"  Come down in power and glory and with justice and judgment.  In Christ, that prayer is finally fulfilled.

Interestingly, the very word for "torn apart" used here is used only one other time in the New Testament: at the time of Jesus' death.  Then, Matthew tells us, at His death, "the curtain of the temple was torn apart, from top to bottom."

That massive curtain, which is said to have been a foot thick and 40 feet tall, was ripped to shreds.  That curtain was the very thing that Jews believed separated them from God, from the inner sanctum, the "Holy of Holies," a place where only a handful of priests were allowed to enter.  Now all of that is gone; and God is to be confined there no more; but is to be found only in Jesus: the One who will be raised in three days.

And yet, in the midst of the massive display of power at the ripping open of the heavens at Jesus' baptism, we see a paradox as the Spirit gently, with total love, alights on Jesus, even as the voice heralds the great epiphany, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And today, we here are privileged read about and to witness to this great event; this great epiphany as the Father notifies Jesus that He, He alone, is his Son, the beloved Son, with whom the Father is well pleased.

Is it any wonder that I get frustrated sometimes with scholars who get so consumed worrying about what they can and cannot understand? Clearly God tells Jesus that he is well pleased, delighted, with him.   And this is the same Jesus who was just baptized for the repentance of sins which He did not commit.

And so now we come back to my idea that the reason for his baptism could well be to set an example for us. Why should that surprise us?  Is not this the same Son, the same man, who will, within three years, will go to the Cross to die for sins which He did not commit, sins that WE committed against the Father and the Spirit, and yes, against Him?  Can we not see the symmetry in that?  Can we not see that at his baptism, even before His mission began, He was identifying with us, probably knowing that He was, Himself, without sin, but willing to show us, by His example, the steps we need to take in obedience to God's will?

He offered Himself to a baptism He had no need to do.  I believe that He did this because He wanted to be obedient to God.  Perhaps He knew why God wanted this; perhaps not.  But what He did know is that God wanted it.  And so He did it.  Just as, as he waited in Gestheme, He wished that the cup of death might pass Him by; but knowing it was God's will that he die for us, He said, "But not my will, but thine be done."

This was no ordinary man. Yet at the cross He allowed Himself to be crucified as an ordinary man, an ordinary sinner, even though He was without sin.  In both cases He did what He did because He knew it was the will of the Father. And it was Jesus’ will to set an example for us.

Why, to this day, do so many not experience the epiphany of seeing who this man really is: The beloved Son of God?  Even with the testimony of the Bible, I run across people who think of themselves as Christians who say, "I admire Jesus.  I really admire him; he was a great man.” Which is, of course, true.  He was a great man.  The question, however, is not whether he was a great man.  The question, which requires a personal epiphany on every Christian’s part to answer correctly, is "Who IS Jesus?"

By reading the Bible accounts of His baptism we are given strong, undeniable clues as to his identity; clues which many who should know better constantly ignore.  They would rather argue over whether or not He should have been baptized by John, or whether He was baptized at all; and argue over who did or did not hear or see what; and over countless trivial things that we can't explain and never will be able to explain. But “Who is Jesus?” is the only question about his baptism that really matters.

We've got to be more like Mark.  There are some things we can't explain; that we never will be able to explain; and that we probably were never meant to know.  If our God is so small that we can figure out everything about him that we want to know; then that God is not the God who is the Father of Jesus. This Season of Epiphany we have to get beyond all the trivial detail and answer for ourselves the real question of the Epiphany: "Who is Jesus?"

Many of you know that C. S. Lewis was probably the greatest Christian apologist of the last century.  He was a crusty, sarcastic and delightfully blunt man; a brilliant man; a man who came to Christ reluctantly, as an adult.  And he was a man who fell head over heels in love with his Savior.  He puts the issue of the Epiphany about as clearly as I can imagine it can be put.

Listen to this statement from his classic book, "Mere Christianity."

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: "I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher; but I don't accept His claim to be God."  That is the one thing we must not say.  A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.  He would either be a lunatic -- on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg -- or else he would be the Devil of Hell.  You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call him Lord and God.  But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher.  he has not left that open to us.  He did not intend to.”

Lewis, previously an avowed atheist, decided that Jesus was his Lord and God. He did this fairly late in life, when he was already famous, and at a time when coming to faith in Jesus Christ could do his career no good, and possibly do it harm.

We each one of us need to remember that when we lift all the facts we can from all the books and all the scholars, and sift carefully through them, when we listen to all the voices who claim to know what is and isn’t true in the Bible, all of that pales in the face of the great question Jesus asks each one of us, “But you, who do you say I am?”

It is a great Epiphany, and a great blessing, if we can answer, “You, Lord, are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

God bless you all.