Sunday, November 20, 2016
Jonah chapter 3 ends with God changing his mind. God was going to wipe out the city of Nineveh. However, when the people turned from their evils ways, God changed the plan. Then chapter four begins, “this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry” (4:1).
Eugene Peterson writes “Jonah is quarreling because he has been surprised by grace. He is so taken aback that he is disagreeable about it. His idea of what God is supposed to be doing and what God in fact does differs radically. Jonah sulks. Jonah is angry.”[i] Peterson goes on to say that Jonah is stuck in literalism. Because God put the message of destruction in his mouth, then in his mind, it must play out only that way; no other outcomes occur to him. Nineveh, one of the largest cities in the world, has to be obliterated. Peterson observes that Jonah fails to see Nineveh. He’s so caught up in a narrative in which he is one of the “good guys” because God is on his side and the Ninevites are “bad guys” that he never considers their humanity or their need for God. He has no grief for their destruction because he does not think about them at all.
Peterson is the scholar who translated the entire Bible into a colloquial vernacular that is very popular today – The Message. He originally translated Paul’s short letter to the Galatians into everyday language in order to help the members of his own church better understand the scripture. He did not intend to translate the entire Bible. He was a pastor trying to liven up a Sunday school class and help the people feel the full emotion and effect of scripture.
Editors who had worked with him on other books persuaded Eugene Peterson to give up his pastoral ministry and dedicate his time to writing The Message. His work conveys an understanding that the power of the Bible comes in the story. In story, we can relate to God and see how past interactions between God and humans speak into our lives. In Jonah’s case, it is the story of someone who thinks of himself as one of God’s insiders even as he disregards those he deems outsiders. Peterson says Jonah is guilty of a failure of imagination.
I know in my own life as a Christian, I have been guilty of this too. From high school to college to seminary to full time ministry, I have always been inside the church. That’s not the same as being close to God, but I often tell myself it is. I worked a summer in the Ingersoll Rand factory Roanoke, pulling parts for the guys on the line who made heavy digging equipment. I played football in highs school and a little bit in college. I went through army basic training and spent six years in the National Guard. I am familiar with the crass language of the barracks and the locker room. But when I spent time in those earthy places, in my mind, I was a person from the church and of the church. I was separate from those places even when I was there.
Restricting my identity and my sense of God to so-called holy spaces, I failed to appreciate the transcendence of God and the love of God. Inside the church, we worship God. He is here. But God is not bound by the church. When we walk out the church doors and go other places, God is in those places too. God was with me in barracks and in those factories where I worked between semesters. If you had asked back then, “Was God present when with you all night as you pulled parts and took them to workers on the line,” I would have responded, “Yes.” Mentally, I knew God was in all places. But I wasn’t conscious to the possibility that God might actually be at work while I labored in uncomfortable steel-toed shoes at the Ingersoll-Rand factory. It didn’t occur to me that great works of transformation could happen there because God loved those factory workers who weren’t, like me, going back to college in the fall.
It didn’t occur to Jonah that God’s love was bigger than God’s judgment. Yes, the Ninevites were wicked. But so was Jonah. So am I. We all sin. Our sins might be different than the sins committed by the ancient Ninevites or by attendees at a frat party or by poor Syrians recruited into ISIS. In each case the specific acts of wickedness is different, but people in every walk of life in every nation sin, and God loves us in spite of our sins. This is the Gospel. Jesus died on the cross out of love for human beings. In becoming human, he embraced the end of all humans – death – even though he never did what brings death; sin. In his willingness to die and in rising from death, he defeated death and invited us to join him in resurrection, if we would receive forgiveness from him and follow Him as our Lord and Savior.
We see this failure to imagine that God would turn around the lives of sinners in Mark chapter 2. There Jesus calls Levi to leave his work as a tax collector and to follow Jesus as his disciple. Levi is so overjoyed, he has a party and invites all his friends. All his friends are tax collectors who became rich by overcharging people who were already quite poor, and prostitutes who – well, we know what they do – and, other miscreants. Pharisees, the legal experts, aware that Jesus was partying with this motley crew, rejoiced. “Yes Jesus,” they cried, “you’re leading these lost people back to God!”
Actually, no, that’s not what the Pharisees said. Actually they complained bitterly because, like Jonah, they perceived themselves to be part of the in-crowd, insiders with God. They weren’t interested in helping society’s deviants to grow closer to God. They were happy to let the lost stay lost and magnify their own reputations as holy men.
How do we recover imagination? How do orient our hearts so that when great acts of God’s grace are seen, we are ready to rejoice instead of complain? I can’t go back to the factory or the locker room or the barracks and have a “do over” from those times I failed to keep my eyes on God’s glory and failed to help other see him. Too often, I missed opportunities to be a witness in those places. But today God gives me new chances see Him at work among people who don’t know him. God is calling you and me to be part of his work of inviting hurting people to the healing and love he gives. How can I be ready to join God in this work? How can we change our outlook so that we show up at Levi’s party full of rule breakers able to relax among them and love them? We don’t join the tax collectors and prostitutes in immoral behavior, but do we reach out to them in friendship because we believe God will work miracles in their lives. How do get to the point where we can do that? How can you and I learn to rejoice when we see Nineveh saved?
First, of course, we recognize that it is a work of God, thus we must draw close to God. We pray, we worship, we stay in the scripture, we meet in small groups to discuss life and faith with other believers in our church family, participate in works of the church, and we eliminate from our lives activities that prevent us from living more faithfully. All this is basic to knowing God better.
Second, we live with uncomfortable honesty about our own sins and this drives us to confession. Deceiving ourselves into thinking we’re “not that bad,” whatever not that bad means, is a total waste. We begin to be shaped by God when are unabashedly honest with him and with ourselves.
Third, we live on the look-out. This is where Gospel imagination can kick into overdrive. Suppose you’re running errands. Might God there, at Harris Teeter? When you go in to buy eggs, bananas, tuna, and bread, do you expect to encounter God in the aisles? No? Why not? He’s there. He’s at the post office and at the auto mechanic’s garage. When we leave the house in the morning, headed out to the most mundane of places, do we expect to encounter God in our daily comings and goings and are we prepared to join God when we see God on the loose in the world? When we pass people at the grocery store, at the bank, at the mall – do we see potential for great works of grace? No, not every trip to McDonald’s is going to be akin to going to the Mount of Transfiguration. But, we go through our days thinking “this trip has the possibility for me to meet Jesus as I see his face in the faces of the people I meet.
Stay connected to God through life in the church in order to know God more deeply. Be brutally honest with God and with yourself about everything that’s in your heart and mind and comes out in your actions. Live on the look-out, expecting to see God at any time, in any place. There’s one more thing.
This one more thing is tough because it go against the way our society has conditioned. As we watched all the election coverage, we were told how African Americans voted, how women voted, how the LGBT community voted, how white professional males voted, how working class people voted, how Hispanics voted; and on and on. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were each trying to become the first Hispanic president. Bernie Sanders would have been the first Jewish president. Hillary Clinton would have been the first woman president.
Taking it away from presidential politics, in our daily interactions with people, do we notice? Was that exchange in the parking lot at the library with a man, or with a Chinese man? Would I say the General I saw on the news was a courageous, bold soldier, or would I say she was a courageous and bold for a woman? Would I say the guy at the party was tremendous dancer, or I would I say, he could really dance, for a white guy?
Staying in touch with God through devotion and through life in the church; being completely transparent with God and with ourselves; living in expectation that today, we’ll meet God; the fourth essential for recovering and then living in a Gospel imagination is the release of categories. I don’t mean we’re color blind. We should acknowledge the pains of African Americans, or indigenous Americans, or of different immigrant. It would be an affront to Jews to ignore the Holocaust. It would be akin to spitting in the face of black people to pretend slavery didn’t happen. We acknowledge cultural distinctives and we celebrate them. We rejoice in the unique contributions and accomplishments different cultures make to the human tapestry. In art, in music, in sports, in business, in technology, in food, in dance, in personality, in style and in a 100 other ways, different cultural expressions are to be championed.
When I say that release of categories is essential for Gospel imagination, I mean, I cannot assume anything about you. If you’re unshaven, wearing a Dale Earnhardt hat, a camouflage-styles coat, and muddy boots, I must not assume you are a dumb bumpkin because you might be smarter than me in 100 ways. Maybe you’re a country person, but country folk contribute a lot to make the world better for everyone. I dare not assume you’re a racist because wearing your books and camo-shirts, you may have done immeasurably more to fight racism than I have. I cannot assume anything. I will celebrate who you are, I will seek the face of God in your eyes, I will not bind you in some category, and upon meeting you, I will eagerly await the in-breaking of the Holy Spirit as you and I talk, however briefly. The same would be true if you are black or if you are Asian or female or of a different economic background. However we are different, when I meet you, I need to release categories and come believing God is about to show up.
I heard Kelly McEvers interview white nationalist Richard Spencer on National Public Radio. Spencer said he found nothing immoral about swastikas or the KKK. He intimated that different racial groups in America should stick to their own kind and that the white kind, European Americans, should be the ones in power. Many in America believe that with Donald Trump coming into the oval office, racists like Richard Spencer will gain power and nonwhites will be in some trouble. I pray that this is not the case. I think one response – the church’s response is to live in Gospel imagination.
We repel the ideology of Richard Spencer by living with arms wide open to all people. She is not that black woman; she is my beautiful African American sister in Christ and when we get together we both believe something amazing can happen because God is in it. When Spencer advocates for advancing the white race, we announce the Kingdom of God. Where Spencer promotes segregation, we display our diverse unity – the full colors of God’s church. Where white nationalist groups process down the street in a parade of hate, filled with the Holy Spirit, we lock arms with one another in a show of love.
We even pray for Richard Spencer because we know that God took Saul the Christian-killer and turned him into Paul the church-planter. Release him from the categories to which he clings. His mouth speaks hatred, but he is a lost soul who needs Jesus. We are free to see that even as we renounce his hateful words. We are free to pray for Donald Trump because we know God is God in the white house and in Trump Towers. God’s sovereignty reigns in those places, so those places, even there, can be a site of miraculous transformation. We are free to go to Levi’s party of sinners and laugh and eat alongside Jesus as he loves people who need him. We are free to sit with Jonah overlooking Nineveh, and we are free to rejoice in the mercy God has shown.
America is in transition. Acts of harassment and bigotry have been reported. There’s an uneasy wind in the air and many are scared. But there is another story to tell, the one in which God is God and is on the loose in the world. Let’s tell that story. Let’s believe all the things we say about God in our song and our prayers. Let’s live that story.
What’s going to happen this week? I am not sure. But I look and I see a lot of people who are going to walk out of here ready to love all people and ready to meet God in the simplest of places. I see a people ready to cheer for the salvation of Nineveh, the people and the animals.
What’s going to happen? I don’t know, but God is about, so we will find out.