Monday, February 27, 2012

The Ponzi Gospel

Mark 10:17-31
by Daniel Harrell
Among the recurrent problems for modern-day suburban Christians in America is figuring out what losing your life for Jesus’ sake looks like. For the earliest disciples, taking up a cross for Jesus left little to the imagination. In a time when Roman rule demanded worshipping the emperor or else, losing your life for Jesus meant losing your life. Going to church was hazardous to your health. However these days, with actual martyrdom in America nonexistent, losing your life is easy since you know it ain’t going to kill you. But what if by losing your life Jesus also meant losing your lifestyle?

This morning’s Scripture passage is one that most of us dread. A man runs up to Jesus and falls to his knees. He asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Many presume the man to be seeking some prescribed formula for salvation, an accomplishable to-do-list for getting into heaven. Clearly he’d just missed the verses just prior about how you gotta be a little kid to get in. But then again maybe not. The man did ask in terms of inheritance, indicating that he understood eternal life not to be something he could earn or purchase. Jesus characteristically responded by changing the subject. “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” This may have been Jesus’ indirect admission of his own secret identity, but it also seems to emphasize that genuine “goodness” is very hard to attain. Jesus asked the man about the Ten Commandments, which the man insisted he had kept since his was kid. Loving the guy for his enthusiasm, Jesus nevertheless sucked all the air out of his balloon. “You still lack one thing. Go, sell however much you own, give the money to the poor, and then come, follow me and you will have treasure in heaven.”

Now at this point in the story, everything the man owned could have been a small amount. It’s not until afterwards that we learn the man was wealthy, and apparently it was his wealth that he worshipped. He sadly slinked away, illustrating Jesus’ assertion elsewhere that God and money don’t mix. Here the Lord remarks how hard it is for rich people to get into heaven—harder than it is to thread a needle with a camel. Believers have always been shocked by this. In the Middle Ages somebody tried to come up with this silly idea about a gate in Jerusalem called the Eye of the Needle that camels could squeeze through if they held their humps just right. But there’s no such gate. We’re talking actual camels and actual needles here. No can do. The disciples were shocked by this since for them wealth was a sign of God’s favor. The rich man kept all the commandments. That’s why he was rich. But now if Jesus is saying not even this pious rich guy can squeeze in, what chance did poor sinners have? Who the heck could be saved? Jesus assured them that God can do anything, but whether that meant saving the rich guy is anyone’s guess. We never hear from him again.

If you joined the congregation this past Ash Wednesday night, you heard me quote Jesus from Mark about how the Kingdom of God belongs to little children. Interpreters traditionally take this to mean that childlike qualities of simplicity, innocence and trust are those intended by Jesus. But these characteristics were likely foreign to most first century people. Simplicity, innocence and trust, while admirable, ran a distant second to a whole set of other childlike characteristics such as ignorance, frailty, immaturity and foolishness. To be compared to a child was to be called a baby. It was humiliating. Which was the point. Jesus said you have to humble yourself like a child and become a servant, which would be like, well, selling all of your possessions and giving the money to the poor.
It would be humiliating, especially since our value as people is established mostly in economic terms. Just like it was in Jesus’ day. This is why we pay so much money for ephemera such as fancy cars or watches or jewelry or Mount Blanc pens: symbols of prosperity that are desirable because they are expensive. People spend a great deal of money for the advantages of being perceived to have spent a great deal of money.” Unfortunately these advantages are easily diminished by the whims of fashion, rendering one’s status quickly commonplace or passé, and leading Jesus to suggest investing your treasure in heaven instead where neither moth nor rust nor changing style can diminish it.

I probably shouldn’t let this moment pass without making a stewardship pitch—we are running behind on our budget. Not that giving toward the church budget is storing up treasure in heaven per se, but it is better than hoarding all your money for yourself. I should also add that personal prosperity is not a Biblical vice. Diligence at work, good stewardship, education and faithful relationships—these are all Christian virtues that can result in financial gain. Yet with financial gain always comes the expectation of financial generosity. “From everyone to whom much is given, much will be required,” Jesus said. The issue is never that God’s people sometimes prosper, but that in their prosperity they adopt the attitudes of their high socio-economic status and afterward ignore or even despise those still clinging to the social ladder’s lower rungs. This may have been the rich man’s problem.

It might help to understand what the Bible means by prosperity. The Proverbs speak of prosperity as the “reward of the righteous,” which is why, like the disciples, many tend to equate financial gain with divine favor. But the word actually denotes a kind of contentedness independent of one’s bank balance. In fact, the most prosperous people in the Bible are often the most monetarily impoverished. As the apostle Paul expressed it to the Philippians, “I have learned the secret of being content whatever the circumstances, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through Christ who gives me strength.” Jesus’ invitation to the rich young man to sell whatever he had was not a call to poverty, but a call to genuine faith and radical trust in Christ.
The apostle Peter, worried, perhaps, that his own salvation was at stake (if not his reputation), pipes up to remind Jesus, “Look Lord, you know we have left everything to follow you!” Jesus assures Peter that “there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, who will not receive a hundred times as much now—along with persecutions—and in the age to come, eternal life.” Puzzling to most people about Jesus’ promise here is not that persecutions get included as a return on our investment (we all know we would suffer more for our faith if ever we really behaved in line with we say we believe). No, what puzzles most people is the hundredfold return Jesus promises now. We understand “eternal life in the age to come,” pie-in-the-sky in the sweet by and by, but what’s with multiple homes and family and real estate here and now? Who ever gets that?

It’s kind of embarrassing. It makes Jesus sound a little bit like convicted swindler Bernie Madoff, the master of the 50 billion dollar Ponzi scheme. Either that or some health and wealth prosperity preacher who promises believers that God will make them rich beyond their wildest dreams if they give to their church and just believe they will receive back a hundred times over, citing Jesus’ own words as guarantee.

If you haven’t personally reaped the kind of return Jesus promised, it may be because you really haven’t given up anything to follow Jesus. (Did I mention we’re running behind on our church budget?) On the other hand, Peter and the rest of the disciples gave up everything, but nowhere do we ever see them raking it in. This reason is because Biblical prosperity is not about the money. There is a contentedness and a confidence that comes with faith in Christ that money cannot buy. Moreover, there is a community too. Jesus promises not only a hundredfold return in homes and land (code words for contentment—think “a house and a yard”), but a hundredfold return in brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers as well. Who are these people? Back in Mark chapter 3, Jesus was preaching to a packed house when his family rolled into town. Too crowded for them to get in the door, his mother and brothers got a message to Jesus indicating that they were looking for him. Jesus responded by asking, “Who is my mother?”—which must have made poor Mary faint right on the spot. And if that weren’t enough, Jesus then turned to the motley crew crowded around him—poor fishermen and prostitutes, despised tax-collecting losers and sinners of every stripe—and said “Behold my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God, that’s my brother and sister and mother.” So much for family first.

What’s Jesus saying? Look around. Go ahead, take a look. This is your hundredfold return. We are each other’s reward… Wow. It’s a little disappointing isn’t it? I bet the disciples felt the same thing. They took a look at each other and thought, “I left everything I had for this?” And that’s before tacking on the persecutions. How is this a reward? Ask most folks to describe Christians and the adjectives typically include words like hypocritical, self-righteous, judgmental, selfish and downright spiteful sometimes. There’s the running joke that churches would be great places if it weren’t for the people. If only we could have Christ without Christians.

Turns out that maybe you can. Here’s a little video to show you how….

This has got to be one of the silliest Christian ideas to come along in weeks. Answer a few questions, click a few buttons, and boom, Monvee designs a customized personal walk with the Lord based on the way God has wired you to walk. Persecutions not your thing? No problem, Monvee will map out a less painful path. Prefer to keep your possessions for yourself? OK, Monvee will steer you clear from those guilt-inducing commands in the Bible. Monvee’s designer described it as “the eHarmony for your soul, but instead of finding a mate, Monvee helps you know how you’re wired and how you best connect with God.” The best part is that Monvee lets you find G-Harmony all by yourself! No more hypocritical Christians. No more boring church sermons. No more messy small groups. No more needy people. Just a few clicks and you can relax your way to righteousness.

OK, so maybe I am a cynical old man who wouldn’t know a life-transforming technological advance if it hit him in his Palm Pilot—even if I do have the cool glasses. Maybe a programmed relationship with Jesus is better than having to wait and pray and trust and suffer and deal with all the ambiguity. Just the way Facebook and other social networks beat awkward or tedious interactions with people in person where you’d have to waste time listening to them go on and on about all of their problems or drive them to the airport or something.

Those of you familiar with psychological research are likely familiar with the famous Grant Study, a 72-year longitudinal look at a group of men at Harvard, alongside another group from inner-city Boston and a group of women from California. Typical psychology studies that examine people at single moments in life can be terribly misleading—a man at 20 who appears impossibly wounded may in fact be gestating toward amazing maturity. Longitudinal studies, though expensive and time-consuming, take in an entire life span and see how everything fits together. The goal of the Grant Study was to determine the key to “a successful life.” When asked recently what he learned from studying the lives of more than 300 people across seven decades, the project’s chief researcher, George Vaillant responded: “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” Jesus was right again. Look around. We are each other’s reward.

And yet, Professor Vaillant tells the story of one “prize” subject, a well-known physician and well-loved husband. “On his 70th birthday,” Vaillant said, “when he retired from the faculty of medicine, his wife got hold of his patient list and secretly wrote to many of his longest-running patients, ‘Would you write a letter of appreciation?’ And back came one hundred single-spaced, desperately loving letters—often with pictures attached. His wife put them in a lovely presentation box covered with Thai silk, and gave it to him.” Eight years later, Professor Vaillant interviewed the man, who proudly pulled the box of letters down from his shelf. “George, I don’t know what you’re going to make of this,” the physician said, as he began to cry, “but I’ve never read them.” To which Professor Vaillant concluded, “It is very hard for most of us to tolerate being loved.”

Maybe this helps explain our addiction to Facebook kinds of friends. They require little more than our coming up with clever status updates and hitting “like” now and then. The problem with actual love is not only what it demands you give it to needy people, but that love exposes you to be needy too. I remember a guy who worked with me on a homeless ministry project complaining about having to listen to needy people go on and on about their same problems over and over again. It was tedious. Hearing his complaint, an older member of our group interjected how that is the tough thing about friendship: being there to listen to friends talk about their same old problems. It can be tedious. Frustrating too. But the great thing about friendship is that there will be times in your life when things won’t be going so well for you. And when that day comes, you’ll have someone there to listen to you too.

“Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions.” What if Jesus’ words are not some hyperbolic declaration, but an actual invitation, or even a provocation to us to become each other’s hundredfold return? What if we were to be each other’s reward, each other’s brother or sister or mother or father or child? You would have hundreds. What if Jesus’ inclusion of persecution is also a further invitation, or even a provocation, to step into the harder, more difficult aspects of these relationships, sharing one another’s troubles in ways that cost us something—if not a loss of life, at least a loss of lifestyle or some loss of time? I think if we consistently made that kind of investment, it’d be hard for anybody to use adjectives such as hypocritical or selfish to describe Christians anymore. The only adjective that would fit, I think, would be: rich.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Resentment of Grace

Jonah 4
by Daniel Harrell

Last Sunday was like one of those bad movie sequels, like Another 48 Hours, or The Next Karate Kid. You sat there and thought: haven’t I seen this already? The same plot? The same players? The same ending? How can this be happening—again? Somehow you hoped things might turn out differently this time. Its not often you get a second chance, such a textbook set-up for redemption. But there it was, only to be squashed by a furious rally. By a miraculous catch. By a mediocre effort at stopping the inevitable. It ends up like just you knew it would, but you still can’t believe it. It makes you so mad that you’re awake the rest of the night. That’s right, I’m talking about Jonah. (What did you think I was talking about?) God directly orders Israel’s prophet to the pagan city of Nineveh, the capital of enemy Assyria, to warn them of their looming doom. Jonah refuses—the only prophet ever to be so brazen—or so brainless. He tries to escape at sea, but God rallies in furious fashion, sending a vicious storm that forces Jonah to go three and out—of the boat. Then comes the miraculous catch—into the mouth of a fish—compelling Jonah to follow the game plan this time, which he does in defeated fashion. He has to deliberately let the other team score, and then bury his head on the sideline to await the final whistle.

Jonah’s story is one of unwelcome grace. The prophet wanted the Lord of Glory to bear his Old Testament teeth, to rise up in wrath against the odious Ninevites, the epitome of all evil. Drop the heavenly hammer, Sodom and Gomorrah style. Rain down some hellfire and brimstone. Plague and pestilence. But instead, way ahead of schedule, God showed his New Testament side and sent showers of blessing instead. He did as Jesus will describe him doing in the Sermon on the Mount, he “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous alike.” In response to Nineveh’s repentance, the Lord changed his mind and relented from meting out judgment. God’s anger was stopped; but Jonah was just getting warmed up.

The prophet is livid: “I knew you’d be gracious!” he yells as he prays. “I knew you’d be merciful! I knew you’d be slow to anger and abounding in love, that you’d forgive anybody who wants it and would change your mind about sending punishment!” As it turns out, the Old Testament God has a soft spot for contrite sinners too. Jonah labels Yahweh as “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, who relents from sending calamity,” but it’s not a characterization he comes up with all on his own. It’s the way the Lord is described in Exodus, in Nehemiah, in the Psalms and on the lips of the prophet Joel too. When extended to Jonah, God’s grace and mercy made him thankful. But when given to the Ninevites, it just made him mad. Their reputation was as a “a city of bloodshed, full of lies and never without victims.” So what that they repented? People repent all the time, and then after they get their forgiveness, they just go back to doing what they were going to do anyway. Who says that Nineveh won’t return to their murderous ways once they’ve been spared? How can God be so naïve? So soft? So unfair? So unjust? “You’re killing me Lord! Killing me! If your intent is to let evildoers off the hook, then you might as well just take my life and kill me now. It is better for me to die than to live.”

OK, so maybe Jonah is being a little melodramatic. Still, talking about loving your enemies does bring out the drama. Whenever I’m teaching the Sermon on the Mount, like I was doing this past Wednesday night, and get to that part about not retaliating against evildoers and all that turning the other cheek and going the extra mile ridiculousness, the knee-jerk reaction, like Jonah’s, is to immediately object and complain about God’s abdication of justice and about our having to be doormats for the Lord. We roll out the serial rapists and the pedophiles and the repeat drunk drivers and Hitler, and how since nobody could ever be expected to forgive them, how dare Jesus expect us to forgive your own enemies—you know, the rude co-workers, or the insulting neighbors, the customers who stiff you, or the relatives who still owe you money? Sure, Jesus only commands us to turn our heads a little, part with a shirt and walk a few thousand feet more, but why would you ever do that for somebody who’s being a jerk? Oh, and then knowing he’s already asking the impossible, Jesus loads on the guilt, telling us to “be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect,” as if your own parents weren’t demanding enough.

As we sit there and stew in our self-justifying juices, God’s question to Jonah becomes his question to us: “Is it right for you to be angry?”

It’s a question that’s left to dangle as chapter 4 goes on to indulge in a bit of a flashback. You’ll remember from last Sunday how Jonah’s token obedience resulted in a short, single sentence sermon: Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” The prophet didn’t mention God once. He said nothing about the possibility of grace or any need to repent or any invitation to reform, all on purpose. He skipped the closing hymn and gave no benediction, no hope for any salvation. And then as fast as he could, lest the Lord send some other beast to bite him, he got out of town, shaking the dust off his feet as he went. He secured a perch overlooking the city and set up a temporary shelter, a prime spot from which to view what was sure to be a brimstone blowout. But to everyone’s shock, the Ninevites took Jonah seriously. His sermon set off a stampede of shame and repentance with the entire city stripping down to sackcloth, wallowing in ashes and fasting from all food and drink. It was an unmistakable plea for mercy to a deity they did not even know. And so that their ashen appeal wouldn’t be mistaken as a piety show, they stopped doing their evil and turned from all the violence and injustice of which they were guilty. And they did all of this without any grace guarantee. Lamented their contrite king, “Who knows whether this God will change his mind and pull back his wrath so that we do not perish.”

This being a flashback, Jonah is not yet aware of the Ninevites’ overwhelming reaction to his sermon. He does not yet know that God has accepted their corporate apology, honored their change of behavior and canceled the fireworks. Due to Jonah’s temper, the Lord decides to break the news to him gently. He sends Jonah a houseplant. A fast-growing Jack-in-the-beanstalk that provides additional shade for Jonah’s vigil of vengeance. The plant puts Jonah in a very good mood—it’s the first time we’ve ever seen the prophet smile. But then the Lord sends in a weevil with explicit instructions to chew through the plant and wither Jonah’s leafy canopy. After that the Lord sends a burning hot wind and jacks up Jonah’s discomfort. God does unto the plant what Jonah wants done unto the Ninevites. How does the prophet like his theology now? “Is it right for you to be angry—about a houseplant?” asks the Lord, loading his question this time with a tangible illustration. The heat getting to him, Jonah is in no mood to learn anything. His melodrama reignites. “Yes I have a right to be angry!” he screams, “I’m angry enough to die!”

What Jonah needs is a good therapist. Some pastoral perspective. Let’s analyze it: He’s mad about a football game—I mean a houseplant. Here today and gone tomorrow. It’s not like it would have made a contribution to world peace or eliminating poverty or reducing climate change. It’s just a football game. I mean a college basketball game. I mean a houseplant! It has no impact on the health of my family, my job satisfaction, the happiness of my marriage, my relationship with my friends. So why do I care? Why do I lay awake night and obsess over the one or two plays that could have totally changed the outcome? Need I be so upset? So devastated? Must I bear my teams’ defeat like some indelible sports tattoos, rubbing my grief in my face and until I die? If I must care so much and be so distraught by something intended solely for my entertainment, something for which I did nothing but sit passively and watch on TV while eating buffalo wings and swilling beer, then why can’t God care about this great city with 120,000 actual living, breathing people locked in their sin and self-destruction who know not what they do nor how to be saved from it? And their animals too? “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?” Jesus asked, “Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. And you are of more value than many sparrows.”

The conclusion to Jonah is often used as motivation for mission, specifically urban mission. Half the world now lives in cities, from culture shapers, next generations and immigrants to the poorest of the poor. Christians are called to care about cities like God cares about cities, which is what motivates Colonial Church to partner with city ministry organizations like Community Emergency Services, Families Moving Forward, Young Life and Calvary Baptist Church among others. There are close to 10,000 homeless children in Minneapolis, half of them under age six. 23% of the city’s population lives below the poverty line. Perhaps this makes you mad. If so, get mad enough to do something about it. Compassion is a good way to channel your anger. Unfortunately for Jonah, compassion was what made him angry. God’s grace ticked him off.

Our Wednesday night study prayed for the family of Ann Blake this week, the mother of two middle school children who was struck and killed on a Maple Grove sidewalk as she waited to cross the street. She was hit by a car whose driver had a blood-alcohol level twice the legal limit as well as an empty vodka bottle in her vehicle. Police were already tailing the driver at the time of the wreck, after receiving a report of erratic driving. Ann Blake’s twin children, one of whom is autistic, are orphans now. Their father died just four months prior, following a year long bout with cancer. Both parents were active in their Lutheran church and helped with Bible school and were advocates for children with autism. It’s unspeakably tragic. We shake our heads at the senselessness, and we shake our fists at heaven demanding to know why God keeps letting such horrible things happen. But what really enrages us is the fact that this drunk driver gets to go on living her life; that she may even find her way to some kind of redemption. And not only does God allow it, but he loves and cares for her too. And far worse than all that, God insists that I care. That I even go so far as to forgive her. That I “be perfect as my Father in heaven is perfect.” Jesus! That is so infuriating!

Let’s analyze our anger just a little bit more. If ever you’ve found yourself in the same boat with Jonah—or in the same fish or under the same houseplant—ask yourself this: Are you mad because your faith cramps your lifestyle and places insufferable restraints on your true identity? Or are you mad because your Christian faith is your true identity, and what’s insufferable is your constant failure and refusal to live it out. In other words, are you mad because you feel repressed by being a good Christian, or because you feel frustrated for being a bad Christian? If my question still confuses you, try an experiment. In the next two weeks leading into Lent, take the first week and be as uninhibited and as shamefully abrasive as you dare to be within the law. Forget Jesus and the kingdom of God. Most of all, forget that other people have feelings. Just care about your feelings and then act on those feelings. Lean into your indignation. Be a savage.

Then take the second week and try as hard as you can to be as perfectly Christian as you know how to be. Show as much indifference to other people’s rudeness and insults and you showed for their feelings the week before. Don’t be pious, just live out the gospel in as bold and as loving a way as your imagination allows. Do what’s right and responsible and honoring to God with all the character, integrity, generosity and prayerful humility you can muster. Be a saint.

At the end of your two weeks, ask yourself the following: Which approach to life is the true you? The answer will probably be both.

Fury and faith are not necessarily mutually exclusive categories. Herein lies the mystery of the cross. It is through the injustice and through the anger that compassion and grace finally come. If by anger we mean that unleashed, impassioned and savage hostility against those people and circumstances which violate, offend, frustrate, threaten, endanger or impede; then the cross of Jesus must be viewed as the anger of God in its truest expression. The sin Jesus bore—of which we all share guilt—brought down the full and just fury of heaven. Moreover, if by grace we mean that unleashed love and compassion for those people who do not deserve it and yet understand that they need it and are dead without it, then the cross of Jesus must be viewed as the grace of God in its truest expression too. God channels his righteous anger into compassion for sinners. He so loves the world that his gives his own Son to die and rise for it, forgiving a world that knows not what they do, making it so that anyone who believes in him shall not perish, but can permanently live a life of grace and compassion themselves. To be perfect like their Father in heaven who makes them perfect.

The family of Ann Blake released a statement upon learning about the drunk driver’s alcohol levels. “This information at least provides closure as to the cause. Nothing can bring Ann back or erase the pain that everyone who was close to her has felt for the last week,” it read. And then they added, “We believe in forgiveness and grieve for the driver and for her family just as we grieve for the loss of Ann.”

Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel observes how “God’s answer to Jonah, stressing the supremacy of compassion, upsets the possibility of looking for a rational coherence of God’s ways with the world. History would be more intelligible if God’s word were the last word, final and unambiguous like a dogma or an unconditional decree. It would be easier if God’s anger became effective automatically: once wickedness had reached its full measure, punishment would destroy it.”

Yet, beyond justice and anger, indeed even through justice and anger, lies the mystery of compassion; the mystery of the cross.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The Bible's Shortest Sermon

Jonah 3
by Daniel Harrell
The closest I’ve ever come to wearing sackcloth was the last time the Patriots played the New York Football Giants in the Super Bowl. Overconfident in the undefeated Patriots’ ability to fend off all comers, I rashly wagered with a loudmouth Giants fan that New England would mercilessly mow down her boys in blue as with every other team they’d rolled over that season. Gathered among the faithful to witness what I believed to be the inevitable Super Bowl night, we were joined in disbelief at Eli Manning’s escape and David Tyree’s ridiculous helmet aided catch. Clearly the Lord’s hand was in it. Following the humiliating loss, I penitently paid my bet. I covered myself with a Giants hat and jersey—sackcloth and ashes for any Bostonian—walked the streets of Boston and loudly professed  my love for New York, much to the derision of my fellow New Englanders. On the one hand I deserved the disgrace on account my hubris and misplaced faith. But on the other hand, my display was a hopeful prayer for a second chance, an opportunity for redemption and maybe even revenge. Tonight is that second chance.

For the overconfident King of Nineveh here in Jonah, potentate of pagan Assyria, the Bill Belichick of the ancient Near East, the prediction of his nation’s pending upset to underdog Israel elicited immediate—remorse! The king “rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” For this pagan king to offer such a shame-filled display in response to the words of an insufferable Hebrew prophet before the game had even been played was nothing short of remarkable—so remarkable that Jesus would commend its virtue centuries later as an indictment against Israel’s own arrogance. Not only did the Assyrian King repent, but all of Nineveh reformed their behavior, turned from their evil ways and from the violence and injustice of which they were guilty. And this without any guarantee of mercy. The king prayed to a deity he did not recognize—referring to God with the Hebrew generic elohim. “Who knows” said the king, “this God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

Of course for those who did know the Lord, who knew elohim to be Yahweh, the idea that he should ever change his mind was absurd. As the Reformer John Calvin would later assert, any suggestion that the Lord would change his mind or relent (or as the King James so boldly puts it, repent) would imply that “either the Lord is ignorant of what is going to happen, or cannot escape it, or hastily and rashly rushes into a decision.” The Bible unambiguously declares in Numbers 23 that “God is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through?” Likewise in 1 Samuel 15: “The Glory of Israel will not recant or repent; for he is not a human, that he should change his mind.” The problem, of course, is that God does repent and change his mind. He does it in Genesis where He repents of having made people. He does it in Exodus where he changes his mind about destroying the golden calf-loving Israelites. Likewise with the prophets Joel and Amos, God changes his mind about his plans for his people. Even in 1 Samuel 15 where the Lord says he doesn’t repents he repents over having made Saul the first king of Israel.

If such change of heart on the Lord’s part bothers you (and as we will see it clearly bothered Jonah), it may be because you project too much of your own manner onto God. We quickly think of all the times we change our own minds—times that usually have to do with poor decision-making skills, lack of information, fear, anxiety or sin—none of which characterize God. “God is not a human, that he should change his mind” should be understood as “God does not change his mind like we humans do.” Unlike humans, God does not say one thing and then do another, nor does he change his mind for frivolous reasons or for no reason at all. God is not capricious or arbitrary but consistent and reliable—and he never changes in regard to his dependability or character. As the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the Word Made Flesh in Christ and the Holy Spirit who dwells in his people, the Lord is reliably personal and consistently loving. He is eager for relationship and therefore always responsive.
Because God loves us, he responds to our repentance and relents from allowing us what our deeds deserve. He is patient with us, creating space for the experience of relationship on our part, for the awareness of our need and for the necessity of our humility and surrender to his mercy. The long-suffering nature of God makes possible a new beginning after every personal disaster and failure. “God is patient with you,” the apostle Peter wrote, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

This is good news for sinners—not so good for those sinned against. This will be Jonah’s gripe. Nineveh was a nation devoted to violence and murder. The prophet Nahum labeled it “a city of bloodshed, full of lies and never without victims.” How can wearing sackcloth and ashes and promising to do better suffice for years of brutality? What if Syria’s current President Assad and his henchmen suddenly stopped killing their citizens and said they were sorry? Does everything revert back to normal as if nothing happened? What about the abusers in your own life? Saying “sorry” and promising not to do it again may be enough for God, but what about you? I remember a woman once narrating for me a horrific history of her own violation, sins she simply could not and would not forgive. If granting grace to her abuser was what it meant to follow the Lord, then she could not follow the Lord. True, God had forgiven her sins and shown her grace to be sure; but her sins unto others were in no way as heinous as what had been done unto her. “I need a God who gets even,” she said, “The angry and vengeful God is a God I can obey.”

That God was so merciful would be why Jonah found obedience so impossible. The Lord ordered the prophet to Nineveh to warn them their days were numbered—in effect to give them one more chance. But Jonah, the only prophet ever to disobey a direct order, ran away in the opposite direction. He boarded a boat headed for the other end of the earth, but he could not hide from God. The Lord furiously bombarded his boat with a ferocious storm. Recognizing his own days to be numbered now, Jonah gave up, but he didn’t give in. He went overboard, willing to drown rather than do as he was told. But God would not let Jonah off the hook so easily. Making him into whale bait, God had a great fish eat Jonah alive and then puke him up onto the beach. And when Jonah came to, God issued his order again: “Get up, go to Nineveh and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” It’s almost word for word with the command in chapter 1, except that here the main Hebrew verb “proclaim” carries a more positive tone, denoting a call to repentance and deliverance. God is going to give the Assyrians a break and Jonah simply can’t stand it.

And yet maybe because three days in the belly of a fish in the middle of the ocean was as bad as it sounds, Jonah complies, albeit with the smallest amount obedience he can get away with. He trudges into Nineveh and delivers a one sentence sermon. Five words in Hebrew that translate to eight in English: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Jonah doesn’t mention God once. Nevertheless, these minimal words were more than enough, causing a stampede of repentance—an altar call on steroids—which has presented a challenge to long-winded preachers ever since. Like the pagan sailors on Jonah’s boat, the pagan Ninevites were better at being chosen people than the chosen people. The Ninevites took Jonah more seriously than the God’s people would ever take Jeremiah or Joel or Amos or Jesus. When Jeremiah brought them bad news, they had him locked him up. When Jesus did the same, they him strung him up. It’s hard to see your enemies offered grace. Harder still is to have it offered to you. An offer of grace presumes that you need it.

Jonah preached during a politically prosperous time for ancient Israel. They were living the dream of favored-nation status—strong and rich—so much so that they grew complacent and started to gloat. They confused God’s glory for their own and hogged it all for themselves. Jonah breathed in this air of superiority, figuring with the rest of God’s people, that the favor of the Lord was what they deserved. The last thing he wanted was for the despicable Assyrians to have a seat at the same table. God knows they deserved nothing but ruin.

I’m teaching a class up at Bethel Seminary this quarter on the topic of Theology and American Culture. Of course, a better title for the class might be Theologies and American Cultures, given the reality of pluralism in our country. It wasn’t always like this. We hear politicians pine for a “Christian America,” a nostalgic time when, culturally speaking, faith in Jesus was practically inevitable. It was a time when everyone affirmed the same religious values, spoke the same religious language, understood all the religious symbols and had their religious beliefs buttressed by social practices and mores woven into everyday life. Sure there were other cultures around, but they all just melted into the pot. These days, what with the expansive growth of cities and urbanization, with stunning advances in travel and technology bringing with it exposure to so many different cultures and ideas, religious belief is no longer the status quo. The Melting Pot has become more of a Super Bowl Party Buffet, a pluralistic smorgasbord of distinctive flavors and tastes. The buffalo wings share top billing with the guacamole and the fried mozzarella. There’s not really a main dish anymore.

By 2050, America will be a country with no ethnic majority. As we discussed the implications of this in my seminary class, it was clear that Christianity would be changing too. We had Korean-American Professor Soong-Chan Rah as our guest in class this week—speaking to us via Skype from Chicago on his Smartphone (talk about stunning technological advances). He noted how when current majority-culture Christians describe theological perspectives different from their own, they’ll use labels such as Asian theology or black theology or liberation theology. But when speaking of their own theology they just say theology—this despite the phenomenal growth of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, numeric growth that has already lapped Christianity in the West. He called this labeling the bitter fruit of the church’s “western white cultural captivity.” He said it’s the cause of the American church being so individualistic and so commercially materialistic and so morally accommodating to popular culture. Professor Rah then went on to ask why in a day when white Christians jump into the political fray over all sorts of issues with little Biblical precedent, we remain comparably hesitant when it comes to caring for immigrants and aliens, which the Bible promotes over and over again. Professor Rah proposed that the reason for the silence on immigration from white churches is because white people are afraid of a nonwhite America and a nonwhite Christianity.

Naturally I and my class of snow white Minnesotans were duly offended. Were we being called racists? At a seminary? As budding young pastors and prophets for the Lord? And yet even being a prophet of God was no guarantee against fear and disgust toward those unlike himself. Jonah hated the Assyrians. The last thing he wanted was for them to show up in his country or at his church or at his table. So what they wear burlap and say the right words, so what that they turn from their evil—who’s to say that once they’ve been spared they don’t go back to their vicious ways? They were that kind of people.

And they were. Within 50 years, the Assyrians would rise up and run over Israel, leveling the Northern Kingdom and carrying its citizenry into exile. And the Lord’s hand was in it. Israel’s complacency and conceit were sins in his sight. God sent Amos and Hosea and told them to knock it off, but they didn’t. And so the Lord announced he would “spare his people no longer.” The repentant Assyrians became the Lord’s ironic instrument of judgment against his unrepentant chosen people. When it comes to his justice, God shows no partiality.

And yet, because God is reliably personal and consistently loving; eager for relationship and therefore always responsive, his anger can be interrupted, halted or completely turned aside. God can change his mind. His love knows no limits—except the limit on those who would despise his love. In their case, divine patience will take the form of waiting for that Day for which evildoers will have piled up their wicked deeds. In an analogous passage from Joel that gets read every Ash Wednesday, the Lord speaks from the verge of his destructive justice and declares that “The day of the LORD is great; it is dreadful. No one can endure it.” “But even now,” declares the LORD, even then with one last gasp, “return to me with all your heart… Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.”
Because God loves us, he responds to our repentance and relents from allowing us what our deeds deserve. He changes his mind. However strictly speaking, even sinners who repent still deserve to be punished. The God who loves cannot abdicate justice. Everything does not revert back to normal as if nothing happened. God’s righteous anger against sin and injustice remains in force, even in the face of forgiveness. It’s what makes grace so scandalous. God’s righteous anger is enforced, only not against the ones who deserve it. Instead, God absorbs his justice onto himself—onto the body and blood of Christ shed for us. And because God loves us, there’s no changing his mind about that.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Throw It Up

Jonah 2
by Daniel Harrell
I was late for last Sunday’s pot luck meeting due to the football game. My years in Boston made me a diehard New England Patriots fan (this despite Bill Belichick’s reputation as the Darth Vader of football). I had planned to set my DVR for the game, but the lure of live TV got the best of me. As most of you know by now, the Baltimore Ravens drove the length of the field in the final minute only to have their Pro Bowl placekicker, Billy Cundiff, shank a 32 yarder (the NFL equivalent of missing a tap-in putt for the championship). As thrilled as I was for the Patriots to win, I admit I felt horrible for Cundiff. I still can’t believe he missed that field goal. Going from hero to goat in a matter of seconds will haunt him the rest of his life. “It’s a kick I’ve made a thousand times,” Cundiff said. “I just went out there and didn’t convert. There’s really no excuse for it.” Not that he didn’t try to find an excuse. By Wednesday he said he’d had to unduly rush onto the field because of a scoreboard “malfunction” at the Patriots’ stadium. Something about how he coordinates his pre-kick routine to the scoreboard and thought it was only third down when in fact it was fourth down. Everyone knows how Belichick Belicheats.

For Cundiff it was what you might call trying to escape the belly of the beast—the beast in his case being the agony of defeat and the pillory of the press. In the case of the prophet Jonah, who missed his field goal on purpose, the beast was a big fish. Like Billy Cundiff, Jonah went from hero to goat in a matter of verses. The Lord ordered the prophet to the vile Assyrian Death Star city of Nineveh to warn them of their pending destruction. But Jonah, the only prophet ever to disobey a direct order from God, fled in the opposite direction. He went down to Joppa and bought a boat headed for Tarshish—the veritable end of the earth in those days. Knowing God as he did, where exactly did Jonah think he could hide? The Lord hurled a hurricane at Jonah’s ship to stop its forward progress. The ship’s pagan sailors, fearing the Lord’s fury, in turn hurled Jonah into the sea to stop the storm. Chapter 1 proved a study of contrasts. The pagan sailors respected the Lord more than Jonah did. They were willing to do whatever God wanted, as soon as they could figure it out. Jonah knew exactly what God wanted, but could not stand to be a part of it. The chapter ended with Jonah in the belly of the beast, setting the scene for one last hurl.

In the Veggie Tales Jonah Movie, this moment is set to music. Jonah is played by an asparagus who ponders his grim fate to the tune of a peppy Newsboys song:
Up to my ears
In bitter tears.
Can’t believe I’ve sunk this low
As I walk the plankton
Inner sanctum.

Got outta Dodge,
Sailed on a bon-less
Bon voyage.
You said North,
I headed South.
Tossed overboard.
Good Lord, that’s a really large mouth... \

I’m sleeping with fishes here,
In the belly of the whale.
I’m highly nutritious here,
In the belly of the whale.

Had the book ended here, you’d conclude that to sleep with fishes is to be digested with them too. It wasn’t enough for disobedient Jonah to drown. Make this the end of the story and the huge fish a shark, and the moral would have been “disobey God and you’re doomed.”

But as we know, what looked like Jonah’s demise was in fact his deliverance. Even though Jonah rejected the Lord and disobeyed his commands, God saved him anyway. The belly of the beast became Jonah’s lifeboat of grace. Now I need to resist getting into the plausibility of whether humans can actually survive being swallowed at sea. I remember one Easter hearing a sermon on Jonah devoted to evidence regarding people who had spent various amounts of time lodged inside sea creatures. The Easter text was from Matthew 12 where Jesus treated Jonah’s travail as a sign of his own: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.” After that sermon a number of listeners were appalled. They’d brought guests to church only to have the preacher that morning go on and on about how people get eaten by whales and survive? What about a whale’s stomach containing a noxious concoction of highly acidic bile that surely would have consumed Jonah in a matter of hours, not to mention days. Then there’s the likelihood of lost limbs, an open gash or decapitation upon entry due to a whale’s narrow esophagus and many giant, jagged teeth. Is Jesus’ resurrection not hard enough to believe by itself?

The preacher that Easter (not me by the way) used the famous tale of a 19th century whaler named James Bartley. Bartley was lost overboard in a struggle with a sperm whale but was reportedly found alive in the animal’s stomach when they hauled it aboard minutes later. If it happened to James Bartley it could have happened to Jonah. Unfortunately, evidence—both historical and anatomical—strongly suggests that the Bartley tale was a giant fish story concocted by some sea-faring opportunist eager to generate publicity for a local whale exhibition. The story got passed along to anybody gullible enough to believe it. Christians nevertheless insist that because Jesus treated Jonah literally—comparing his three days in a tomb to Jonah’s three days in a fish—that Jonah had to have been swallowed whole. Does this mean Jonah was dead like Jesus? That would make his regurgitation more like a resurrection. Only God could do that. Which may have been the point.

Jonah definitely considered himself as good as dead. His prayer—a classic Hebrew psalm of thanksgiving—has him descending all the way to the land of the dead. Fleeing God’s command, Jonah first goes down to a ship, and then once overboard, he goes down into the heart of the sea, down through the seaweed that wrapped around his head, down to the roots of the mountains, down the very bottom of the ocean, and ultimately down “to the land”—to the netherworld, to the Pit of Sheol—whose bars closed upon him forever. They say drowning is a horrible way to die. When the first involuntary breath occurs most people are still conscious, which is unfortunate, because the only thing more unpleasant than running out of air is breathing in water. But for Jonah, his consciousness allows him one final plea: “As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the LORD; and my prayer came to you.” And God intervenes. “You brought up my life from the Pit.” Jonah’s prayer comes from inside the fish—an underwater grave that would be his salvation. As with Jesus, death was not the last word.

That Jonah would pray is appropriate. Believer or skeptic, we all come to bleak moments when prayer is all we have left. I’m sure that Billy the Kicker said a prayer as that football hooked to the left. I just finished the best-selling book, Unbroken, by Laura Hildebrand of Seabiscuit fame. In it an Olympic miler and World War II bombardier named Louis Zamperini went down with his plane in the Pacific. He floated for almost two months with the two other survivors, living off rainwater and occasional albatrosses that perched on their heads. Never a religious man, Zamperini nevertheless prayed that if God would get him through this, he’d serve him with the rest of his life. Jesus prayed the same sort of thing in Gethsemane, asking that God might save sinners some other way. God’s answers didn’t come as one would want. That kick stayed left. Louis Zamperini was rescued from sea, but his rescuers were Japanese military who tortured him mercilessly until the end of the war. No sooner did Jesus say Amen than Judas showed up with soldiers to betray him. And while Jonah was saved from drowning, it was only so that he could be eaten alive.

To Jonah’s credit he does equate his being devoured with being delivered. With God, like it or not, life usually comes by way of death. You have to lose your life to find it. Thinking about this can be depressing—which led me this week to the existentialist writings of Søren Kierkegaard. I’ll often read Kierkegaard when I’m having a bad day to make sure I milk it for everything it’s worth. Kierkegaard wrote a lot about human despair. He wrote how person who despairs bears all his past problems as the present. Memories haunt and extend their hampering effects into every moment of your existence. It’s what makes despair feel likes it’s going to go on forever. He wrote, “The most painful state of being is thinking about the future—particularly the future you’ll never have.”

Kierkegaard considered despair to be a basic loss of faith; the refusal to trust God. Despair takes two alternative shapes, he said: Either it is “the despair not to will to be oneself;” that is, the loss of will to be the person God calls you to be. Or it is “the despair to will to be oneself;” that is, the defiant, self-sufficient will which disdains the person God calls you to be. The first kind of despair is indifference while the second kind is arrogance. Arrogance cares only for itself while indifference doesn’t care about anything. We see both of these in Jonah. Jonah thanks God for his salvation, but is indifferent toward the pagan sailors who risked their own lives for his. He says no prayers for them. And though Jonah praises the Lord and promises to go to Temple every Sabbath from now on, he arrogantly includes no willingness to repent and go to Nineveh to do what God commanded.

Kierkegaard labeled despair as The Sickness Unto Death, a borrowed and juxtaposed phrase from John’s gospel. Jesus, when told that his friend Lazarus is sick, replies that “this sickness is not unto death.” Of course, Lazarus did die—Jesus even delays going to him to assure that he would. But in dying and then being raised by Jesus, we get a sneak preview of what Kierkegaard calls “the final death of death by death” that would be fully accomplished by Christ on the cross. “I am the resurrection and the life” Jesus said to Lazarus’ sister Martha in her despair, “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.” “This sickness is not unto death,” he said, “but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God might be glorified through it.” You might say the same about Jonah. The last line of his prayer reads “Deliverance belongs to the Lord.” Or another way to put it, “Salvation comes from the Lord.” Either way, there are any number of Hebrew words for salvation or deliverance, but Jonah chooses the word yeshua, the same word given as the name for Jesus—another reason, perhaps, that Jesus, yeshua, ties himself so closely to Jonah.

Faith in Jesus often happens at the outer limits of our effort, in that despair where all we have left is a prayer. Confronted by the failure of own capacity and will, we recognize the necessity of that failure. It is only in failure that a lost creature can be finally found. Faith is the decisive act of surrender; we get up by giving up and giving ourselves over to God. “Those who cling to worthless idols,” Jonah prayed, who put their trust in their own capability and power, “forfeit the grace that could be theirs,” Aware of his utter failure and lostness, Jonah surrenders and is cast into the sea and onto the mercy of God. Though the sailors pitched him overboard, Jonah recognizes that God was really the one who did it. It was God who “engulfed me,” whose “waves and billows swept over me.” It was God who pulled Jonah as low as he could go, to the very Pit of Sheol itself, so that Jonah could fully experience God’s grace and be swallowed by it.

Jonah’s deliverance was itself a miraculous Old Testament sneak preview of Jesus’ resurrection. It was something only prayer could accomplish because it was something only God could do. Faith occurs at the outer limits of our effort, in that despair where all we have left is a prayer. Confronted by the failure of own capacity and will, we recognize the necessity of that failure. It is there that a lost creature can be finally found.

For Louis Zamperini, his return to America after years of Japanese torture brought him a hero’s welcome. But it also brought him financial ruin and a slow descent into depression and alcoholism. It wasn’t until his desperate wife dragged him to a Los Angeles Billy Graham Crusade in the 50s that he remembered his promise to God on that life raft. Finally found by Jesus, Zamperini never took another drink, went on to run a camp for disadvantaged teenagers, and got involved at Hollywood Presbyterian Church where he met our own Dave Williamson. Dave wrote me this week about skiing with Zamperini, about his return to Japan in seek out and forgive his torturers. While in Japan at age 81 Zamperini made it back to the Olympics, running a leg in the Olympic Torch relay for the Nagano Winter Games. Dave says he’s still doing remarkably well at age 95. “Deliverance belongs to the Lord.” In Christ, the lost get found, sinners are redeemed, grace exonerates the guilty, justice comes for the oppressed—and wayward prophets get hurled onto the beach.

Clearly salvation can sometimes be messy. The Veggie Tales movie had Jonah singing as much:
Woke up this morning kinda blue,
Thinking through that age-old question:
How to exit a whale’s digestion?
It might behoove me to be heaved.
Head out like a human comet.
Hmm... I wonder what rhymes with comet?

I couldn’t help but recall Dawn and I flying home one time with Violet standing at our feet on the plane. She turned and gave us that funny look kids get before they throw up all over you. And then she threw up all over us. We still had a couple of hours left in the air. Taking for granted that whale vomit can only be worse than an toddler’s, Jonah had a lot of cleaning up to do. While we can do nothing to earn our salvation, we still must do something to show we’ve received it. Having experienced the deep grace of God, Jonah gets another shot at obedience. Chapter 3 will open with the Lord repeating his command to get up and go to Nineveh. Will Jonah do it? Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “It can be so hard to believe God, because it is so hard to obey God.” May Christ help us do both.