Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Final Sermon. Dr. Canfield’s Jonah Series. Insiders and Outsiders

2013 02 03 Final Sermon. Dr. Canfield’s Jonah Series. Insiders and Outsiders. The Baltic Parish

In the "introduction" to the Book of Jonah, I pointed out that, while we know very little about the background and setting of the book, and even less about Jonah himself - we do know, with certainty, that the Book of Jonah was written by an insider, to insiders, about an insider.  And that we, too, are "insiders.”

Jonah was the foremost prophet of his day; the spiritual leader of the nation, an insider who worked for the king.  He was at least as important as any modern Archbishop or denominational leader of our day. He had the credentials; he had the power; he had the prestige.  And, to top it off, he had an inside track to God.  As a prophet he was God's spokesman.

That's not hard to understand. We all know people in every congregation, or in positions of authority in our own denomination, who are "special" insiders.  Some of us might even, at a weak and honest moment, admit that we are pretty special to the church.  And we take a certain amount of prideful satisfaction in that. For example, the truth is that I sometimes do that, even when I know that pride is a great sin! It is the nature of the human beast to be prideful, and that is a hard sin to shake. We have to really work at being humble. It takes a lot more effort to really BE humble than it does to tell ourselves we are humble!

But, as we saw last week, Jonah, the insider, comes off very poorly in this story. It is the "outsiders," those for whom Jonah has, at his best, disdainful tolerance; and, at his worst, bitter hatred, who come off looking good in the story. They come off looking good to us; and, at the end of the story, they come off looking good to God.
There are two groups of outsiders highlighted in the story: first, the sailors and their captain and second, the Ninevites and their King.

I imagine that the sailors to be a rugged bunch of individuals; they come from many different places; they apparently have little in common; they worship different gods; but they do share a dangerous, low paying vocation. And they have some other things in common.  They know the sea, and they respect the danger of a storm at sea.  And when a storm comes they know what to do - they pray and then they take action.  And not one of them is an Israelite - they are NOT part of "the people of God," at least as Jonah thinks of  “the people of God.”

Like the Ninevites, they represent the people of the world: outsiders - certainly not only outside the church, but also outright pagans, worshiping other gods.  To Jonah, they are anathema! But - and this is intended to be a shock to our self-righteous, "insider" digestive systems - these are people who DO the things that we insiders are supposed to do - and don't often actually do; and they have characteristics that we tend to associate only with insiders – as if common decency were a monopoly owned by we insiders. Let’s look at some of those characteristics.

 –– The sailors are HUMANE: they risk their lives trying to row the boat to shore to save the ship - and Jonah!
–– They are PIOUS: when faced with danger they turn first to prayer, then to action.
–– They are PRACTICAL: when disaster strikes they work, shoulder to shoulder, together, to do what they can.
–– And, most importantly, they are open to SPIRITUAL GROWTH: When at the height of the storm they learn about the true God from Jonah, unlike Jonah, they pray to that God, our God, for help, and they offer to him sacrifices.  Jonah sleeps, and when aroused, tells them ABOUT God; but does not, himself, bother to pray to God on either his or their behalf.

Taken on its face, the story is deeply ironic: common sense would expect us, fellow insiders, to identify with Jonah, the insider.  But the writer knows that our sense of what is RIGHT makes us want to be LIKE THE OUTSIDERS, not like Jonah.
What is going on here is that the scene of Jonah and the sailors asks us - insiders who see ourselves as God's people - to re-evaluate our attitudes and prejudices toward "outsiders," those whom we would never normally see as "people of God."

And in the light of what we now know about Jesus, perhaps doing that might force us to remember something written by St. John: 'For God so loved THE WORLD that he gave his only Son'; not "for God so loved US" that he gave his Son.  And that "world" includes those sailors, and all those other outsiders who dwell in the squalor of Rio, Damascus, Teheran, Beirut, Calcutta, and, of course, Ninevah.

Ah, Ninevah, that whore of a city.  Jonah hated it.  But, spit up on the beach Jonah is given another chance - Go to Ninevah and preach a simple declarative statement "Yet 40 days and Ninevah will be overthrown!" And, reluctantly, while deeply angry at God, Jonah did.  And the miracle occurs - the whore listens, the murderous King hears, and they respond with fasting and mourning.  The King himself sits in sack cloth and ashes; he calls a fast – extending even to the animals who are to wear sack cloth and ashes as well as the people.

Nor does the King assume that God will repent of his righteous wrath.  He knows well his own sin and the sin of his city. But he cares for his people, and so all he can say is the wonderfully ironic line: “Who knows? Perhaps God will have mercy on us."  This vile and sinful outsider knows he has no reason to expect deliverance, and so he throws himself and his city on the mercy of God.  He knows only too well their sin; but, like the captain of the ship, his overriding concern is for his people.  "Who knows?"  God may even deliver the Ninevites, a people deserving of punishment for generations of sin.

And the city is "overthrown" all right.  But not as Jonah expected. 
God does not consume it in his wrath.  It is over thrown by the repentance of its people - those lowly "outsiders.” And we must ask: Who cares that this miracle has taken place?  Well, it certainly isn't Jonah.  He is enraged. He walks out when he finds that God will not destroy the city that, by every standard of justice and decency and, yes, VENGEANCE, should be destroyed.  But God pities Ninevah, hears their cry of repentance and saves the city.  What do we - insiders all - think of that?

Jonah hated it!  He hated that the God to whom he sang in the belly of the fish "Deliverance belongs to the Lord!" would deliver THEM! He hated it because, all along, deep in his heart, he KNEW that God was capable of just such selfless, forgiving love toward all those of his creation. God could show a love to others that Jonah’s hate could never let Jonah feel.

This story asks us, God's people, those of us within the church, to re-evaluate how we feel about and act toward all those "outsiders" we hold morally inferior to ourselves.  As James Limburg says, "It speaks a word of criticism against a people who prefer huddling and cuddling in the safety of their own groups. (It calls them to be) about the tasks to which Jesus called them: 'Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.'  It warns the people of God against the danger of forgetting that they are ambassadors, participating in reconciling the world to God.”

 So, who cares?  God cares.  And we should care for the Ninevites of this world. There is no better lesson upon which we can build our upcoming Lenten prayers and actions.  Lent is much more than “giving up” something; a true and lasting Lenten discipline means "giving" something of ourselves to others.  

The book of Jonah tells us that those “others” include all the "outsiders" of this world that our God also calls his children. May we, in our lives and by our actions, open ourselves to be Christ’s ambassadors to a world full of outsiders; full of "Ninevites."  If we do, then “Who knows?  Perhaps our God might spare US a thought, and be pleased by the compassion of his people.

To our surprising, loving, forgiving  and compassionate God be all the glory!  Amen.

Jonah Tries To Run from God’s Will

 2013 01 27

Sermon: the Baltic Parish: Jonah Tries To Run from God’s Will

God's instruction to Jonah is very clear.  "Arise, Go to Nineveh and prophesy against it because it is wicked!"  That seems pretty clear.  And Jonah was a professional, royal, prophet, so you would expect Jonah to understand clear instructions from God and to do them, in proper, "Thus says the Lord" fashion.  After all, that is what a prophet is for, to be the mouthpiece of God. Prophets are always to speak for the Lord, often they are to speak the very hard truths that we don't want to hear – and they are never to speak for themselves.  That's how it works.

But that's not how it worked with Jonah.  Jonah arose alright. And then he made a 180 degree turn from the direction on Nineveh and went down to Joppa, intent on fleeing the presence of God altogether by going to Tarshish.  Tarshish was as far as one could get from Nineveh at that time, way out on edge of the Atlantic Ocean on the coast of what we now call Spain.  Tarshish was literally thought to be at the "end of the earth."

And here we get the FIRST point of the story: it won't work!  It is not possible to escape from God when God is intent on calling us to a mission. And so, in a masterful use of metaphor, the writer tells us that Jonah then begins a series of "descents" from God.  He goes "down" to Joppa; he goes "down into the ship;" (most translations says "went on board" but the Hebrew word is "down.") he then goes down into the hold of the ship; he lies down; and he drops down into sleep.  He is forced to get up, but not of his free will, is thrown overboard, and then he goes down into the sea.

Before Jonah gets anywhere near Tarshish he is already going down, down from God, down, he says, to the very roots of the mountains, down to where the deep surrounds him, where weeds wrap around his head and the gate of the Pit closes upon him….Down to a place where, without help, he is as good as dead.

 Jonah thought he knew what he wanted: to do whatever it takes to flee from God; to go to Tarshish; and, if necessary, to die. But we learn here the SECOND point we need to know: that it is impossible to escape the presence of the Lord.  The Psalmist knew what Jonah did not: you can never escape the presence of God.  From Psalm 139 :

7  Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
8  If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9  If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10  even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11  If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,"
12  even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

And a THIRD truth is revealed to us here: it is impossible to escape the tasks that God assigns to us.  After all that happens to Jonah, after the fish spits Jonah safely onto the beach, God does not say, "Well, I hope that you have learned yours lesson.  Take a few days off.  Get some rest.  Then report to me next Monday and I'll find something for you to do that isn't so disagreeable to you." Not a chance. In the very next line, before Jonah has time to take a shower, comb his hair, shave, brush his teeth and put on some clean clothes, we are told, "The Word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, 'Get up; go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim the message that I tell you!'"  Jonah is back at square one.

But more important than these teachings is the FOURTH teaching that is inherent in this story of deliverance: that it is impossible to escape the LOVE of God.  Psalm 139 also clearly says this as do many other places in the Bible, such as Paul's great hymn of God's love in Romans 8: "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord."

Jesus himself tells a story, perhaps the most beloved story that he tells, of the prodigal son, who could not bear being at home with his father, and so he demanded and got his inheritance, left, squandered it, and then sunk "down" into the pit with the pigs that he fed to stay alive, literally eating the scraps thrown to the pigs he tended.  And so at the end of his rope he returned to his father. He came home, content to be a slave, not a son, if that be his father's will.  Yet, upon arriving home he learns that, in all his attempts at running away, he had not escaped the love of his father, who was beside himself with joy that his son had come home.

Jonah, like the wayward son in that story, has to learn the hard way.  And it is not by accident that, only after Jonah had exhausted all his own options, only when he reconsidered the death that he had shortly before thought he wanted, only when he was one tick away from drowning did God send the fish to save him. It was sent not simply to save his life, but to save Jonah from himself!

Moving into Chapter Two we see Jonah within the belly of the fish reconsidering all he had done, a changed man, far different than the one we were coming to know in the first chapter. In fact, most scholars, including me, think that this prayer, a poem in the style of a psalm, was added to the story by a later writer who sought to rehabilitate Jonah by making him thankful for his deliverance from certain death. We will learn later on that Jonah’s rehabilitation did not take.

But, regardless of who wrote it, we are expected to learn something from this prayer, this psalm.  Which brings us to the FIFTH thing we can learn: and that is that when we are down, when we have exhausted all of our own resources, the only thing left to do is to pray to God for deliverance.

For someone of faith, and often also for those who have previously had no faith at all, when we, like Jonah, go down, and then the bottom falls out; when we reach the end of our rope; when we cannot possibly create a new future for ourselves; when the god we have made of ourselves fails us, all that is left to us is to pray to God for deliverance.

When he was going down into the depths of the sea Jonah's initial thought was that he had been thrown into the sea by God, and then had been abandoned by God.  But when we read the story carefully we know that neither of those things that Jonah thought were true.  Jonah did it to himself!  Can we learn something here? I think we can.

And so we come to the FINAL lesson for today. Isn't it often true that when, by our own decisions and actions, we are cast into the depths of despair, of desperation, real or imagined, we want to blame our misfortune on someone, and often that someone is God?

Well, so did Jonah.  But when he finally realizes that he is getting his death wish, that he will forever dwell in the Pit, when he fears that he will be barred from the face of God forever, then and only then does he wake up.  "When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, God!"  And God remembered Jonah.  And so Jonah completes his psalm of praise with the one thing that he now knows for certain: "Deliverance belongs to the Lord!"

Unfortunately, too often we think that deliverance is something we can handle ourselves.  But our faith teaches us that when things get really rough, when we are finally done shifting the deck chairs on the Titanic, and God points us toward a way out of our despair, we finally figure out that our salvation comes as a pure gift, a free grace from God.  Salvation does, indeed,  belong to the Lord. Jonah learns that much, but only for a short while.

And so we end this exploration of the first half of the Book of Jonah.  Next, in the third and final sermon in this series, we will learn lessons every bit as important and practical as those we have learned today.  Like today’s lessons, the lessons for next week will be clearly applicable to our daily lives, and the big question is whether we will willingly open our hearts to the lessons we learn in this series, and make them a part of our lives.

God bless you all.  Amen.