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09.13.20 Four Faiths in the Parable of Jonah Sermon Summary

The parable we know as the book of Jonah is among the best known stories for its raging sea storm, giant man-swallowing fish, and eleventh-hour repentance unto salvation among the people of Nineveh. It ends with the prophet Jonah sitting east of the city still hoping God will smite the Ninevites. Along the way four examples of faith emerge to instruct the people of God.

THE MARINERS’ FAITH

When Jonah fled the presence of God’s Word by boarding a ship to Tarshish, the LORD caused a mighty storm to stop him. After several attempts to save themselves, including even prayer to the God of Jonah, the mariners on the ship listened to Jonah’s advice and threw him overboard. “And the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the LORD even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.” 

The mariner’s faith was motivated by fear, relief, and awe. Their relationship with God was not all that they were created for, but at least they did have something. They show that even after all our futile attempts to save ourselves have failed, they can lead us to a kind of faith or faithful action. 

THE NINEVITES’ FAITH

After Jonah proclaimed destruction in the town of Nineveh and the king of the city heard it, all of Nineveh performed acts of repentance. They fasted, wore sackcloth, and sat on ashes. All these are ritual accompaniments to prayer. Even the animals were subject to these prayerful acts, and perhaps this is why the parable makes a point to spare even the animals in the end. 

The Ninevites’ faith shares with the mariners’ faith an element of fear and destruction. The difference is the Ninevites received God’s Word and responded to it. They did not wait for their situation to get worse. They heard of God’s holiness and resolved to walk in it. 

THE FAITH OF JONAH

Twice Jonah recites doctrinal formulae that prove he was listening during Sabbath School. As a good Hebrew he worshiped, “The LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” And he had learned that God is, “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

But Jonah’s faith did not pass from his head and his mouth to his heart. His faith was not transformative. It did not change him from what he was, which is judgmental, vengeful, and resentful. He prays that God would take his life for, “it is better for me to die than to live.” And the parable ends with Jonah stubbornly refusing to participate in the joy of God’s salvation.

THE FAITH OF THE PSALM

Finally we come to the place with which we began, the psalm that is Jonah chapter 2. Scholars debate whether it is a later addition to the parable, and I believe it is. The psalm is a song of thanksgiving for deliverance that has already happened. The text says that Jonah “prayed” using a word that only ever elsewhere means “a plea for help not yet rendered.” The psalm does not sound like the Jonah of the rest of the book, especially the bitter man at the end. 

I imagine the psalm existing independently from the parable, but bringing the parable to mind because the images and metaphors of the psalm align so well with the events of Jonah’s flight. (See also Psalm 18:1-16.) I think the later editor gave us a tip to hear this as an insertion by telling us Jonah prayed “from the belly of the fish,” using not the same word for “belly” as in the original, but a synonym. 

And one of the reasons a later editor inserted the psalm is because it exemplifies the kind of faith God wants us to have—not just a fearful faith like the mariners, not merely an obedient faith like the Ninevites, and not just a doctrinally true faith like Jonah’s. God wants us to have a faith characterized by thanksgiving for the deliverance God has brought about in our lives: “I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the LORD!” (See also Psalm 116:1-19.)

THE FAITH WE HAVE

The parable of Jonah calls the people of God to a gracious, forgiving, and inclusive faith, a faith based on love and gratitude towards God and a desire to see all people delivered. Whatever our faith may be like today, whether more like the mariners’ or more like Jonah’s, may God come to find in us a faith like that in the author of the psalm. Amen.

09.06.20 Following God in Spirit Jonah 4:1-11 Sermon Summary

When God called Jonah to Nineveh the first time Jonah ran. He spent “three days and nights” in the belly of a big fish. Then in the book there is a psalm. Finally Jonah goes to Nineveh and they repent! Here we are at the final scene, but this is not the end.

Jonah is among the most colorful characters in scripture, which is impressive because his story is only really three chapters long when you take out the psalm that was inserted later. After Jonah followed God in body by preaching through Nineveh, and after the Ninevites followed God in body by fasting, wearing sackcloth, and sitting in ashes, they also followed God in Spirit. They repented.

But Jonah never repents. He wants Nineveh punished at the beginning. And he still does here at the end. When God failed to punish the Ninevites, it “displeased Jonah and he became angry.” Jonah should have known. In fact he did know. 

In his Sunday School faith fashion Jonah knew the “right” answer: “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” But Jonah never let that knowledge into his heart. He never let it change him.

Being the drama king he cries out, “Just let me die!” and stomps off to the East. God asks him if he’s right to be angry and Jonah gives God the silent treatment. He builds a shelter for himself and waits to see what happens. He’s still holding out for punishment, and he’s willing to wait.

Here’s a really interesting part: God causes a bush to grow to give Jonah shade. Jonah already had shade. That’s what the shelter is for. Then God causes a worm to kill the bush. And this makes Jonah angry again. 

Why did God cause the bush to grow and the worm to kill it? Here are four reasons.

First, it reminds Jonah of God’s sovereignty (as if the storm, the fish, the lots weren’t enough). Sovereignty means that God is free: Free to let us make choices like Jonah did; Free to override those choices as God eventually does; and Free to change the divine mind, as God did with Nineveh.

Second, it reminds us that no matter we can do for ourselves we still need God, and God is still there. Jonah had shade he made for himself. God provided more pleasant shade.

Third, God caused the bush and the worm to expose just how shallow, selfish, and emotion-centered Jonah is. Jonah is angry all over again. God asks again, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” Before, about Nineveh, Jonah was silent. But now, when it’s about the bush, about him, he answers: “Enough to die.”

Jonah cares more about his comfort than about the Ninevites’ lives, more about his feelings than about God’s truth. And God’s truth is that he cares about Jonah, and God cares about the Ninevites. Black lives matter to God, and so do the lives of white supremacists. God’s truth is that God loves you, and God loves your enemies.

Jesus knew this. When we follow God not only in body but also in spirit we become like God. This is why he says, “Turn the other cheek to the one who strikes you” (following God in body), and, “Pray for and love those who persecute you” (following God in spirit).

Not so Jonah. Jonah is shallow, selfish, and short-sighted. This scene reminds me of another parable about two brothers. The younger one spends his inheritance on dissolute living. The older one works the family farm. The younger returns to a welcome party which the older one refuses to join.

Their father comes out to plead with the older brother: “Your brother was lost, but now is found.” And the parable ends there. Just like Jonah. 

Our parable says Jonah built his shelter East of the city. “East” is a symbol for being separated from God’s presence, as in “East of Eden.” God wants Jonah to rejoice, to experience God’s grace with thanksgiving, to have love for Ninevites people and their animals.

But the parable of Jonah, like that of the two brothers, ends unresolved. It’s an open-ended invitation for Jonah to become less selfish.

Finally, the bush and the worm teach that God doesn’t leave Jonah out there alone. The father doesn’t leave the older son out there alone. God is trying to save Jonah from himself, and saving us takes time. 

To conclude, let us think of the ways we are like Jonah. Here are six things that keep us out East.

1. Not letting God be God, that is, not trusting God to be God. We want God to hold the same values and the same grudges as we do. 

2. We think we know better than God. We know the Bible better than God (“But the Bible says . . .”). We know about justice better than God. We know about eternity better than God. We don’t let God be God because we know better than God.

3. We hold on to past hurts. Jonah was written after the Assyrian invasions (Nineveh was the capital of Assyria). Israel was still hurting and increasingly angry with God. The parable invites Israel to trust God and to let go. 

Holding on to past hurts leads to bitterness. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “The one thing certain about bitterness is its blindness. Bitterness has not the capacity to make the distinction between some and all.” Which leads us to number four.

4. We maintain simple, dichotomous prejudices. “Jerusalem is good; Nineveh is bad.” “All protesters are the same.” “All cops are the same.” “All conservatives are the same.” “All liberals are the same.” Such prejudices separate us from others—from others in whom God is also at work.

5. We have a narrow view primarily determined by emotions. Hurt, anger, and prejudice are self-serving, self-preserving emotions. But they don’t give us the whole picture. Without a story that includes everyone, despite our emotions about it, like Jonah and the older son, we can’t see the Kingdom of God.

6. We need religion that is not just head-strong, but heart-felt. We need a religion that penetrates our hearts and transforms us. It isn’t enough to think about God. It isn’t enough to follow God in body. God wants us to follow in spirit also.

Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. These are the greatest commandment. Do this and you will live.”

May we set aside our bitterness and prejudice, set aside our pride and our slogans. May we let God be God and trust God to transform our hearts. May we follow God not just in body but also in spirit, that we may enter fully the kingdom of God. Amen.

08.30.20 Following God in Body Jonah 3:1-10

Disobedience and sin are closely related, But obedience and sinlessness are not the same.

Jonah was disobedient. God had called him and he ran. He knew what to do and didn’t do it, which is one definition of “sin” according to James 4:17: “Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.”

Later Jonah is obedient. But he is not repentant as we’ll see next week from chapter four, and as we’ve already mentioned from chapter two. Jonah is what Stephen Covey calls “maliciously obedient.” He does what he’s told defiantly.

God told Jonah to proclaim repentance to the city of Nineveh. What were the sins of Nineveh? Jonah 3:8 mentions acts of “violence,” and Nahum 3:1 refers to Nineveh as the “city of bloodshed.” What ancient Israel had experienced of the Assyrians and their capital city Nineveh was unrelenting military cruelty.

But there is probably more. The word Jonah uses, “overthrow” is the same word for judgment used in the story of Sodom. Isaiah 1 describes Sodom this way: “Your hands are full of blood. . . Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan plead for the widow. Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.”

Ezekiel 16 says this: Sodom had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty. So Nineveh represented militaristic violence and cruelty, but they also represented social injustice.

When Jonah arrives and preaches through the first day the people repent. Then the king repents, and even forces the animals to penitence. I have an interesting take on this which I’ll share in two weeks.

So Jonah is the first to follow God in body. He went to Nineveh. Then all of Nineveh follows God in body by wearing sackcloth, sitting in ashes, and fasting.

Jonah proclaimed a coming judgment which was followed by repentance. Over the past two weeks our Democratic and Republican presidential conventions also proclaimed doom. They warned of the virus, America’s decreased standing in world, economic collapse, and the erosion of our culture.

How would these prophets have us repent? Shut down the country, reform the systems, and maintain statues and monuments. The better question is: In what ways are we like Nineveh? Like Sodom? Like Samaria, which was destroyed by the Assyrians? Like Jerusalem which was nearly destroyed and eventually was by the Babylonians? In what ways is America like any of the objects of God’s judgment in the Minor Prophets?

In what ways do we need to repent, as individuals, as a city, and as a nation?

Or have we nothing to repent of?

Jesus told a parable about a Pharisee and Tax Collector (Luke 18:9ff), both of whom went up to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee, standing by himself, thanked God that he was not like others, including the tax collector. He fasted and tithed. The Tax Collector meanwhile, standing far off, looked down and beat his breast.

Tax Collector, Jesus says, went home justified. The Pharisee did not. Luke gives us his interpretation of the parable:  Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. This as we’ll see was Jonah’s attitude.

Both Jonah and Ninevites followed God in body, Jonah into the city and the Ninevites with fasting and wearing sackcloth. The Ninevites were delivered from their sin and like the Tax Collector, they went home justified. Jonah did not experience the joy of salvation. He did not go home justified. And as we’ll see next week, Jonah has yet to come home at all.

May we not be like Jonah. May we follow God not only in body but also in spirit.

Blessing for the Beginning of School

May God give you patience until the time you remember that nothing resides beyond God’s care. And then may you experience peace and humor. 

May God bless all you have done as you approached this day–whether it was to isolate every variable and prepare for them, or to delay decisions until the ever-new-information came–or somewhere in between. God can bless all approaches because God inhabits every future. In any case, God is with you and is leading you.

May God fill you with grace as you deal with students, teachers, administrators, and parents. Remember most of them are trying their best, and among those who act carelessly they often act unconsciously. May God pull you away and prompt you to pray for the one who treads dangerously near your last nerve. 

May you begin with the end in mind, even though this beginning is chaotic. In the end, God heals, Wisdom instructs, Spirit triumphs, and all creation rests. 

Do your best, forgiving others and yourself, and return to these blessings as often as you can and need. Amen.

08.16.20 Fear and Worship Jonah 1.11-16 Sermon Summary

When the mariners with Jonah saw the storm, they “were afraid.” When they confront Jonah he responds, “I worship the LORD God.” (LXX) Then the mariners “feared and were even more afraid.” We should note that these words share the same root in Hebrew. English translates it “to fear” but also “to reverence, to be in awe, to worship.”

This ambiguity plays well in this parable. Maybe Jonah thought he worshipped God but now he’s beginning to fear. Maybe the mariners thought they feared God but they are beginning to worship. The Septuagint (LXX) tries to clean this up. In this Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, Jonah “worships” God only and the mariners “fear” only. It uses two different words.

When a later edition cleans up an ambiguity, it inadvertently confirms the ambiguity. Our relationship to God can be fear AND/OR awe.

When Jesus rises from sleep and calms the storm he asks the disciples, “Where is your faith?” Then Luke reports: Having been afraid, they marveled, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?”

The mariners with Jesus went from fear to awe. Again: Our relationship to God can be fear AND/OR awe.

Jonah knew God’s presence. God was present to Jonah by his word. And yet Jonah is trying to escape. The disciples don’t recognize God’s presence. They don’t recognize God’s Word Incarnate. And so they want to make God present.

When the disciples realize God is present as Jesus speaks God’s Word of calm, they worship God.

The Lord’s Supper is an encounter with God’s presence. God has promised to be here around bread and cup. And we need this assurance, especially through the storms we are experiencing. But we need also to remember that God is present in God’s Word. God is no less present in the scripture or sermon than in the sacrament.

This is why in these extraordinary times we gather at the Table infrequently. Gathering is difficult if not dangerous. But God is no less present to us despite our infrequent Communion.

“Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus said. We are to remember something that has already been revealed. It is that God is with us in God’s Word. God is with us in God’s Word Incarnate. God is with us in the resurrected Christ. And God is with us in the storms.

So let us fear if we are afraid. But if we are afraid let us also worship. For whether we know it like Jonah, or don’t realize it like the disciples, God is with us through the storm.

Prayer after Communion: God of all creation, at this table Jesus took the gifts of bread and cup from your creation and made them the sacrament of his presence. Just so, you took the elements of water and wind to make your presence known to Jonah, the mariners, and to the disciples through this same Jesus. Continue to make your presence known to us, through your Spirit and the fellowship we share with one another. Give us, in the storms of our lives and world, that peace that transcends understanding, the peace and hope that comes from faith. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

 

08.16.20 Running from God Jonah 1:1-10 Sermon Summary

It seems people are perpetually seeking God. You have the religious shoppers who go from faith to faith, taking some of this one and a bit of that one. Each year there are multiple best-selling books on the religious quest. People attend retreats, Bible studies, prayer groups, and service projects.

All this can result in a deeper experience of God. Or it can just be experience. I believe that some people busy themselves seeking God in order to avoid encountering God.

There is no doubt that Jonah is avoiding God. “The word of the Lord came to Jonah saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.’ But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. So he went down to Joppa, found a ship which was going to Tarshish, paid the fare and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.”

Elizabeth Achtemeier points out: “The verb for ‘arise’ in v. 2 is repeated in v. 3. God commands Jonah to ‘arise,’ and Jonah ‘arose.’ His response is immediate. However, instead of going to Nineveh, he flees in exactly the opposite direction to Tarshish, a name that is repeated three times for emphasis.” (Preaching from the Minor Prophets, p. 57)

Jonah isn’t seeking God. He’s heard God’s voice! He knows God is near. God is very present, too present. No, Jonah is avoiding God. Why do we avoid God?

Maybe it has to do with what God is offering. God is a healer, but we want to deny our hurts. God is generous, but we don’t want to give. God is forgiving, but we like our grudges. God is a savior, but we don’t want to confess our sin. God calls us to faith, trust, and hope, but some of us are already tried and we’re just done.

Today we are familiar with the Jonah parable. But first time hearers wouldn’t know yet why he ran from God. There are three things we do know about Jonah from these first ten verses.

First, Jonah’s faith is creedal. He knows his religious doctrine: “I am a Hebrew. I worship the Lord God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land.” Jonah’s religion is head-knowledge but it is not heart-felt. He knows what to say about God but his heart hasn’t been transformed (as we’ll see in coming weeks).

Second, Jonah doesn’t pray—or when he does, it isn’t sincere. The mariners with him are desperately throwing cargo off the ship and praying to their own gods while Jonah sleeps below deck. The captain comes to Jonah and tells him to pray to his god. Either he doesn’t or he’s not very convincing, because they then resort to casting lots to find the problem.

Third, beyond a faith that is primarily head-knowledge and not praying sincerely, Jonah runs from God without shame. When the lot falls to Jonah he recites his Sunday school doctrine and the mariners are filled with even more fear, for Jonah already told them he’s running from God. I imagine that first conversation. “Welcome aboard, mate. Join the crew. All of us are running from God.”

These three observations teach us something about Jonah. He has head-faith, he doesn’t pray, and he runs away without shame. Why? I believe Jonah thinks he knows better than God. Jonah has got God all battened down. He is so confident in himself that he can sleep through the storms of life.

I am reminded of another story about a nautical storm during which someone is so confident that he sleeps. Luke 8:22-24 retells it his way: One day Jesus got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” So they put out, and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A windstorm swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. They went to him and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm.

Like Jonah Jesus is confident, but not in himself or in his knowledge. Jesus is confident in God. Again the mariners wake up the sleeper. And unlike Jonah Jesus prays, and Jesus’ prayer calms the storm. And whereas Jonah shamelessly runs, Jesus shamelessly walks. Jonah runs away from God. Jesus walks with God.

Jesus shamelessly walks with God. Jesus shamelessly walks with tax collectors and the spiritually possessed. Jesus shamelessly walks with foreign military officers and the religious elite and even infamous sinners. And Jesus shamelessly walks with each of us.

Unlike Jonah, Jesus didn’t know better than God. Now some will say, “Jesus WAS God; he shared God’s knowledge.” I don’t think so. If that is so, then Jesus couldn’t be a man of faith. And if he’s not a human of faith he could not inspire us to faith. He could not exemplify faith to us. And we humans couldn’t follow him.

All of us are in a storm—not just COVID; we have our personal storms too. In these storms, we may have one of two responses. Either we’re sleeping or we’re not.

If we’re not sleeping it is because like the mariners we’re offering haphazard prayers—thoughtless and heartless. Or we’re working extra hard throwing over cargo or bailing ourselves out. In Jonah and Luke this is a lack of faith.

If we are sleeping through the storm it’s because like Jonah we know better than God. We are confident in ourselves: “I’ve got this.” “Science will get a handle on this.” “It’s not as bad as they say.” Or we can sleep because like Jesus we are confident in God: “God’s got this.” “I can trust God.” “It’s bad, but God is better.”

There may be another explanation that is not in the story. It is in my story. I am tempted to sleep not because I am confident in God but because I lack faith. And I lack faith not like Jonah lacked faith—not because I know better than God—but because my faith has gotten tattered. I run because God calls me to faith, trust, and hope, but I am already tried and I feel done.

If you’re not sleeping through the storm because you’re like Jonah, because your offering random prayers in fear or frantically working to save yourself . . . or if like mine your faith is wearing out . . . And if you’re not sleeping through the storm because you’re not like Jesus, confident in God’s deliverance and patient in God’s timing . . .

Then let us learn from Jesus how to pray. Jesus said in Matthew 6:7-8, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do [and mariners also]; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

When the skies darken above us and the waves around us rise, may we not run from God. May we not avoid the storm in a sleepy depression or a false confidence in ourselves. But let us run to God in prayer, beginning not with our knowledge of creeds or even our previous knowledge of God.

But let us run to God with the faith of Jesus that God our loving parent knows what we need even before we ask.

08.09.20 Our Center is Prayer Jonah 2 Sermon Summary

The most famous of the Minor Prophets is Jonah, probably because it is short—only four chapters long, a narrative—actually a parable, and there are so many great Sunday school lessons to derive from it. Still, underlying this fabled tale are some major theological themes.

I start with chapter two for several reasons. First, it appears to be a later insertion. The prayer of chapter two is inconsistent with Jonah’s attitudes and actions. Plus, it speaks of a deliverance that has not yet happened. If it is a later insertion, then the later editor has a lesson in mind for later readers.

Parables generate many conclusions, and the way this one ends is so abrupt and open ended, the original ending must be preserved. It cannot be closed. So chapter two offers one early alternative or auxiliary conclusion to the parable of Jonah.

Consider this: the word “belly” in the prayer is a synonym of the “belly” of the fish into which Jonah is swallowed. This single word is the clue both to the prayer’s connection to and disconnection from the parable.

So what are we supposed to learn from this psalm? In a sentence: No matter how far down in the darkness we go, God hears our prayers still.

When you are making your descent while SCUBA diving, you signal to your partner and orient yourselves to above-surface landmarks. Then you release air from your vest and slowly drop below surface of the water. The light above you dims, and the sounds you hear narrow to your own breathing. You have to equalize the air in your sinuses because of the pressure of the water tightening its grip upon you. As a beginner, my greatest fear was getting tangled up in something down below.

Two summers ago I dived in the Mexico Cenotes. These are underground rivers and lakes. Technically it’s not cave diving, which is a specialized skill. But in fact it really is. Except for your flashlight, you look up and there is nothing above you. You are in complete darkness. Trapped!

I was reminded of this when I read Jonah 2:3-6: God cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all the waves and billows passed over me. Then I said, “I am driven away from God’s sight; how shall I look again upon the holy temple?” The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever.

Descent into darkness can be terrifying. You don’t know how long it will last, how deep it will go, how dark it will get, or what else is in the darkness. In SCUBA you always have a “buddy.” The author of Jonah two had no one. “Jonah” was alone.

Miriam Greenspan writes, “The imagery of descent, stasis, emptiness, captivity, sterility, and darkness vividly communicates the interior landscape of despair as a place of inner paralysis, abject loneliness, spiritual barrenness, and existential meaninglessness.” (Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair, p. 117)

Jonah two asks, “How will I look on God’s holy temple?” A better translation is more adversative: “Nevertheless, I will look towards God’s holy temple.” This “nevertheless” helps explain a hard concept. The author says, “God cast me into the deep.” It fits with the parable of Jonah, and with many other verses of scripture.

But what kind of God is this, who casts Jonah into the darkness of despair? Who sends Joseph to be a slave in Egypt? Who allows foreign nations to conquer his people? Who forsakes Jesus to die on the Cross?

What kind of God is this? One to be worshiped out of fear; fear that at any time, this could be us? Some people say yes, as we’ll see next week. But is there another way to read this?

We can’t change the words of scripture or the author’s understanding. But we are called to interpret passages of scripture in light of the whole of scripture and what God has revealed of Godself otherwise. Here’s how I interpret such passages.

Jonah has found himself in a deep darkness. He feels alone and abandoned. He feels powerless and indeed he is. He needs a power greater than himself, a power greater than his circumstance, a power outside this experience, to rescue him.

If such a power exists to save him from this experience, that same power could have prevented it. And so, he reasons, that power must have caused this experience. Fair enough. But under this reasoning is the assumption: God can save. This, I believe, better resembles God than that God blesses us, only after cursing us first.

“God can save” the passage is saying, “so I will look to the holy temple and I will pray to the holy temple.” In the hopeless pit of despair, even from within the captivity of Sheol, the author remembers God, looks to the holy temple, and he prays. “As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.”

Though we despair of seeing God—and God seeing us—God hears our prayers. This is the message of the psalm: “I called to the Lord out of my distress, and God answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and God heard my voice.”

God is a savior. It is God’s nature to save—which is good news–because we need a savior. It is our nature to be saved. This is why the psalm ends, “Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to God; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”

Those who look to others to save them forsake their true loyalty, their true nature. Our true nature is to look to God for salvation. That’s how we were created.

Jonah doesn’t understand this until he hit the bottom: The deepest, darkest despair of his life. Sometimes it takes that. And sometimes we realize it earlier. But always the message is the same: We are never so far down, never in such darkness, never under such distress, never experiencing such despair, that God fails to hear our prayers. And even from behind the gates of Sheol, we are saved by none other than God.

At the end of a dive you look up to the surface—a place you cannot see but you know is there. You have to swim slowly and even pause before reaching the surface so your body can adjust from the unique experience of the depths of the ocean to the routine of life on land. Then you and your buddy break the surface and breathe as God made you to breathe once again.

Ephesians 4:9-10 asks us: When scripture says, “Christ ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.

In the depths of despair let us remember the message of this psalm: God hears our prayers, and sends a buddy to save us. Amen.

07.26.20 Message to Leaders Malachi 2, 3 Sermon Summary

The job of prophets is to critique conventional wisdom, those thoughts and practices that everyone agrees with and conforms to. Prophets contradict popular opinion by offering a godly perspective and call us back to godliness. What the prophet Malachi says about leadership, we need to hear today.

The people of the Southern Kingdom of Judah had experienced something of a purge. First the Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BC. Then Judah and the Temple at Jerusalem were destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC. The Persians defeated Babylon in 539 BC and sent the Judeans home.

They rebuilt the Temple and restored ritual sacrifice, but the society was corrupt and the religious leaders didn’t offer correction. From this context the prophetic book we know as Malachi arose. It means “my messenger” (of the Lord) and what Malachi said was, “If you fulfill your religious duties and pursue justice among the people, God’s blessing will come to you.”

Today we look at Malachi’s message to the leadership of the people. “To you priests, I give this command,” chapter two begins. Priests came from the tribe of Levi, the only one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel who did not receive a portion of land. Instead Levi was given a vocation—the priesthood—to mediate between the people and God. Since they had no land to cultivate or herd, and since they were busy with the priesthood, Levites were materially supported by the offerings of the other eleven tribes.

God made a covenant with Levi, that is, a relationship based on promise. “I will give you life and well-being,” God promised, “and you will give me reverence and awe.” The role of the priests included true speech and instruction without regard to status, consequence, or benefit to themselves.

In Malachi’s time the priesthood of Levi, the Levitical priesthood, had become corrupt. They accepted the second best from the people. Their best was reserved for their Persian governors. And so the Levites offered the second best to the LORD. They accepted less than was their due from the other tribes to keep the peace. To make up for their lack, they offered judgments with partiality, showing favor to the privileged.

In all this, God says through Malachi, they profaned the covenant between God and Levi. But they also profaned the covenant among God’s people, the promise of just relationships. In this way the priests perverted justice.

And so God says in judgment, “I will curse your blessings, rebuke your offspring, spread dung on your offerings, and put you out of my presence.” Or in other words, “Your ministry will do nothing, your legacy will be nothing, your offerings will be utterly rejected, and you will not experience my presence.”

These are hard words to leaders. Many read the Bible as if it addressed to them. But some things are addressed only to leaders. For example:

  • James 3:1 Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.
  • Timothy 3:2-4 Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way.
  • Titus 1:7-9 For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or addicted to wine or violent or greedy for gain; but he must be hospitable, a lover of goodness, prudent, upright, devout, and self-controlled. He must have a firm grasp of the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching, so that he may be able both to preach with sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it.

Biblical instructions to ancient leaders must be interpreted for today. We know this because the following verses in Titus above propagate bigotry against Cretans and Jews. We don’t believe, as Titus asserts, that, “Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, and lazy gluttons.” Nor do we believe that Jewish belief is invalid because it rests on myths.

There are instructions for leaders in the Bible but they must be interpreted before they are applied today. Incidentally, there are also words for congregation members who are not leaders: Hebrews 13:17 “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing—for that would be harmful to you.”

Those of us who are leaders must take the Bible’s instructions “to heart,” to use Malachi’s words. I take them to heart. My vocation is leadership. So what about Malachi’s words? How shall I receive his words to the leaders of his day?

The priests of Malachi’s day were national leaders. This was especially the case after the exiles. So Malachi’s words address our national leaders today. Now think about that. Malachi’s words apply not just to me as a pastor, but to our mayor, to our governor, and to our president. We leaders are to speak truth without partiality.

Each of us has to judge for ourselves: Do our governmental leaders speak truth? Do they speak with impartiality? Or think of it this way: When it comes to the refining fire, who’s going to feel the heat?

But we also need realize this: All of us are leaders. All of us lead someone, because all of us influence someone. If you are a parent, a caretaker, an employer, or a manager, you are a leader. If you are financially secure, a decision maker, or have power over others, you are a leader. If you are privileged, technologically proficient, or educated, you are a leader. If you are experienced, white, or physically able, you are a leader.

As a leader, you are also held to these standards in the kingdom of God. Do you speak the truth? Do you show impartiality? Do you respect the covenant? Do you love God? Do you love your neighbor? Because this is what it means for leaders to have faith, to respond to God with faith.

“What God calls for from the Judeans in Malachi’s time, and always from us, are love in response to God’s love, trust on the basis of all that God has done, obedience out of gratitude for God’s constant merciful and forgiving presence with us.” (Elizabeth Achtemeier, Preaching from the Minor Prophets, p. 136)

Such leadership can feel overwhelming. If you feel that leadership in the church or in the country or in your own life is so corrupt, so wayward, so wrong-headed that it can never be corrected, hear this good news. God is sending a refiner’s fire. We don’t have to do it alone. We don’t have to do it ourselves. In fact, we cannot. God desires to purify our leadership until we offer to God an offering in righteousness.

Do you desire this? Are you among the faithful who “hunger and thirst for righteousness?” Will you participate in “the day of God’s coming?” If so, then surrender yourself to the Refiner’s fire. Speak the truth. Show no impartiality. And stand by those who speak the truth with your voice, with your vote, and with your action.

And through your leadership may “the offerings of God’s people be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and in the former years.” Amen.

07.19.20 Embarrassing God Malachi 1, 3 Sermon Summary

Psalm 33:12 states, “Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord.” Some people say the United States is a godly nation, a religious nation, or was at least founded on religious principles. Such a nation would have responsibilities; one of which is don’t embarrass God.

Today we begin a series of sermons on a new minor prophet. In the past months we’ve listened to Habakkuk from the 6th century prior to the Babylonian exile, and Hosea from the 8th century prior to the Assyrian exile. Today we listen to Malachi from the 5th century after both of these traumatic events.

By the time of Malachi, the people had returned to Jerusalem, the Temple had been restored, but Judah remained only as a minor nation. They had a glorious past, had been promised a glorious future, but it hadn’t come to pass.

Hosea had said, “They shall again live beneath my shadow, they shall flourish as a garden; they shall blossom like the vine, their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon. “ (14:7) And Habakkuk had assured, “There is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” (2:3)

The people of Malachi’s day were saying, “Why hasn’t God been faithful?” Malachi offers an answer. It is a book about reality, about how life after exile is still hard, and about the choices that we make. By our choices we either honor God or embarrass God.

God says through Malachi, “From the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts.” (1:11)

By contrast, Judah was dishonoring God. They called God “father” and “lord” or “master,” but gave God only the second best. Did you know the church often receives hand-me-down, second best things. Some people are offended when I inform them that the church is not obligated to receive anything anyone hands it. And neither is God. But God is more patient.

Malachi’s message is that God’s patience runs out. The people failed to treat God as a parent or a lord. They failed to honor God as much as they did the government: “When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not wrong? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not wrong? Try presenting that to your governor; will he be pleased with you or show you favor? says the Lord of hosts. And now you implore the favor of God, that he may be gracious to us. (Why isn’t God answering?) The fault is yours, (by the choices you make.)” (1:8-9)

Later God says, “You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me—the whole nation of you!” (3:9) How were they robbing God? By not bringing a whole tithe, which refers to a tenth of one’s accumulations, whether money or harvest.

Let’s take an excursion about the tithe. A tithe is one standard in the Bible guiding people on giving to the religious establishment. It is an easy, convenient benchmark. Not all biblical faith communities treat it the same. Mormons enforce it. You report your income and they monitor whether you tithe. The Jewish community in my city develops a budget, splits expenses among households, and sends an assessment.

Most Christian communities, including Faith, treat giving and the tithe more passively. You can read my thoughts at this link.

Malachi was one who believed in the tithe—the whole ten percent. But he also believed in giving God our best, not our second best. And also giving God the first-fruits of our lives, not our left-overs.

Jesus once sat opposite the treasury at the Temple and watched as people made their financial offerings. As Mark tells the story, Jesus commented on the paltry gift of a widow’s two coins. “She out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:44)

What are we to make of this? Did she have only two coins to her name? Do the two coins represent a tithe out of twenty coins? We don’t know exactly, but the Greek word Mark uses of her gift is “bion,” like bio. Jesus is speaking about her life, about her heart. The gift of two coins represented the woman’s heart.

Ultimately, Malachi is talking about the same thing. Chapter three reports, “the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. (After I) draw near to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.” (3:4-5)

The nation was robbing God not only of the tithe but also by worshiping other gods, by withholding a living wage, by neglecting widows and orphans, and by rejecting immigrants. The Bible’s word for such grievances is “justice.” Justice does not refer to legal alignment, but to relating in a right way. The synonym for justice in the Bible is “righteousness.” It refers to our right relationship to God, to neighbor, and to all creation.

“If you do this,” God says in Malachi, “if you bring in the whole tithe, and if you relate with justice, I will bless you.”

Some people say America is a Christian nation, or at least founded on Christian principles. If so, are we giving God his due? Are we giving God honor, our best, better than we give the government? Do we give God our first fruits? Do we ensure justice for all?

Or are we embarrassing God before the other nations? We must ask this as a nation and as individuals. We are blessed as a nation and as individuals. Imagine how blessed we would be if we were more just.

07.12.20 Ritual Righteousness and Love Hosea 6:4-6; Psalm 51:16-17; Matthew 23:2-3, 23-24 Homily Summary

Ephraim, that is, the northern Kingdom of Israel, kept up religious appearances. They maintained worship, had festival observances, and offered daily sacrifices. But they shared their religious love with idols. Those idols included self-reliance, military might, political maneuvering, and exploitation of the poor.

Given the choice between religious righteousness and relational righteousness, God prefers relational righteousness. God prefers love over sacrifice, knowledge over offerings. Only some people really understand this. They’ve done everything right and followed the religious rules. But they didn’t love God or neighbor.

They understand the words of Psalm 51: “For God takes no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, God would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

Some read this verse and conclude that God is not interested in religion at all. They say that ritual, prayer, worship, sacraments are meaningless. Even worse, they conclude, such things are DISTRACTIONS to what God wants.

In the Gospels, the Scribes and Pharisees are the foils of Jesus’ teaching. It’s not always fair or accurate, but it is effective. In Matthew 23 Jesus says, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”

Later Jesus goes on: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”

Jesus understands the purpose of religious righteousness. It is to direct us to relational righteousness, to remind us God is in the details of tithes and offerings, for example, so God is also in the big picture of loving our neighbor.

Can religious righteousness become a distraction? Only if it becomes a SUBSTITUTION. Only if ritual sacrifice replaces ego sacrifice which is necessary for love.

Jesus, Hosea, and the Psalmist would have us love God truly, and love our neighbor concretely, and practice our religion sincerely. Sincere practice of religion requires these kinds of love. Love of God truly. And love of neighbor concretely. Amen.