11/29/2020

Heroes

 Inspired by Daniel 6:1-23

The opening words of the book of Daniel read like this, “In the third year of the rule of Judah’s King Jehoiakim, Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar came to Jerusalem and attacked it.” And so begins the long and treacherous years of exile for God’s people—exiled from all that they held dear: home, land, freedom, worship, all the identifying markers of what made them who they were, in their eyes. Even worse was the haunting question of where God was in all of this, if God was anywhere? Have you ever wondered that? I hope not, meaning I hope that you have not found yourself in a life situation that has caused that question to arise. Unfortunately, I know better, and know that many of us have indeed found ourselves in circumstances that abandoned us wondering where God is. It’s a tough place to be in. Which is why I love this story so much, because of when it was given to God’s people originally, during a time of great need, which is also why I love this story for us right now.

So, just to give you a little backstory on how Daniel got to this point of his story; Daniel had served under a number of kings, earning the respect of all of them. The respect was shown by putting Daniel in higher and higher positions of power and influence over the years, in spite of his Hebrew blood, a people that they had conquered. Along the way there are a few notable stories: the story of The Fiery Furnace as well as the story where the saying, “The writing on the wall” comes from. By the time we get to chapter six, which is where our story for today comes from, Daniel has been placed as third in command in the kingdom by King Belshazzar. Upon Belshazzar’s death, Darius becomes king and is about to make Daniel second in command and that’s where we jump into the story. If you hadn’t made the connection by now, it reminds me a lot of the Joseph story and how he was placed in positions of power everywhere he went, in spite of being a foreigner.

As often happens, when foreigners, or outsiders of any kind, come into power, those around them, especially those who consider themselves insiders, the powerful majority, get their knickers in a knot and do everything they can to keep them from gaining any more power, going to great lengths, even sabotage. This is exactly what happens to Daniel. Those up for the same position around him go looking for Daniel’s mistakes so they can point them out to the king, but they come up empty. Have you ever been in a position like that? When people around you have tried to sabotage you? Maybe they were jealous coworkers, jealous family members, maybe even jealous church members! Gasp! Not in the church! Heaven’s no! Sometimes, no matter how much you try to mind your own business, work hard, keep your nose clean, do good work, be a good person, someone inevitably wants to rain in your parade. That’s where Daniel finds himself.

As hard as they tried, they couldn’t find anything to use against him. So they do what so many do when they’re out of options, the making something up! They make up some law about praying, designed to target Daniel, the outsider, the foreigner, the minority in all of this. Seems as though that game has been played for a long time, hasn’t it! The law that they make up said that anyone who prays to anyone other than the Babylonian king was to be put to death. Oddly enough, the king agrees. Why? Because he was weak, too easily influenced by others, unwilling to stand his ground even when he knew something was wrong, he was a weak king. And Daniel, was just the opposite. Daniel was strong, Daniel was not easily influenced by others, and stood his ground even with powerful forces against him. Unfortunately for the king, this new law backfires on him because the guy he was about promote to second in command, Daniel, was arrested and sentenced to execution due to the bill he just signed into law. So Daniel gets thrown to the lions. However, all is not lost, it turns out the lions didn’t touch a hair on his head, and Daniel is released and allowed to prosper.

Now, if you’re wondering if this story really happened, as many of you often do after reading a story like this, I hate to break it to you but, that’s the wrong question to be asking; because honestly, it really doesn’t matter. Is this a story of a miracle? Absolutely! But probably not the one you’re thinking of. The real miracle here is not that Daniel was saved from a lion’s den. The real miracle here is what this story meant to God’s people when it was first given to them, what it has continued to mean to them since, and what it means to us today. For the first hearers of this story, Daniel was a hero, no a superhero! And not because God saved him but because he had the courage and integrity to stand his ground when it would have been so easy to just stop praying to God; he had the courage and integrity to remain who he was when it would have been so easy to just give in to society; he had the courage and integrity to hold on to his heritage and his God, when it would have been so easy to just assimilate. Daniel was the hero they needed when they needed him.

For they were a people who were on the brink of losing everything, not just their land and home and freedom but their culture, their religion, their God. They were on the brink of being erased from history or at the very least being reduced to a minor footnote in someone else’s historical narrative. And this beautiful story of Daniel comes along to tell them to stand their ground! All is not lost! God will find a way! God has not left you! Don’t lose yourselves in this exile! Don’t forget who you are! You are God’s beloved. You are God’s precious chosen; chosen to keep the ways of God alive and well, in spite of the predicaments you find yourselves, because of the predicaments you find yourselves in, making you too, heroes in your own right. It reminds me of David Bowie’s song Heroes, when he says, “We could be heroes, just for one day…What d’ya say?” He wrote that song about a couple who stood their ground in spite of one being on the East side and one being on the West side of the Berlin wall. I love the song because it highlights how all of us are called to be heroes, even in small ways, at particular points in our lives. It doesn’t take a cape or a mask or a lion’s den.

I can’t think of a better way to kick off Advent than with this story, especially during a pandemic. We need heroes now more than ever! And they are all around us, if you look for them. Doctors, nurses, first responders, to be sure. But maybe even more profound are the regular everyday folk who stay home unless they have to go out, everyday folk who wear a mask in spite of the inconvenience, everyday folk who check on their neighbor or fellow church member just to make sure they’re ok. There wasn’t anything particularly special about Daniel, other than he was good at what he did. He was just everyday folk, whose courage and integrity led him to do what was right, for the sake of his people. Sure sounds like someone else we know, doesn’t it! But that’s for another story! In the meantime, as we kick off this Advent season, I invite you to ponder the heroes from everyday folk in your lifetime. How have they sustained you along the way? How have they given you hope in times of hopelessness? Do they even know that they had that kind of impact on you? And while you’re pondering all of that, let me thank you for being the heroes that I know you are, even though you’d be the last to admit it. Thank you for keeping alive the ways of God. Thank you for passing on the ways of God—the source of all goodness and mercy and hope—needed now more than ever. Thanks be to God. Amen.

11/22/2020

Jeremiah & the Childish King

 Inspired by Jeremiah 36:1-8, 21-23, 27-28; 31:31-34

As we continue through the time of the prophets, let me give you a quick snapshot of where we are in the grand scheme of things. Life is quickly going from bad to worse for God’s people. Last week we read from Isaiah in the northern kingdom of Israel and at that time Isaiah was warning them that the end was near. It turns out he was right and the kingdom fell to the Assyrians and was never heard from again. Our story for today comes from Jeremiah whose ministry occurred in the southern kingdom of Judah approximately a hundred years after the fall of the northern kingdom. Since that time, the Babylonians conquered the Assyrians, because there’s always a bigger fish, so now they had control over the kingdom of Judah and had slowly been choking them out, so much so that all that was really left in the hands of God’s people was the capital city of Jerusalem. For a time they actually had a good king, king Josiah, who tried to follow God’s ways, only for his son, Jehoiakim to assume the throne and be one of the worst kings in all of Judah’s history. That’s where Jeremiah comes in.

Like Isaiah, poor Jeremiah has one of the toughest jobs of all of the prophets, having to be the prophet to walk with them through their death. Up til now, king Jehoiakim has been able to placate the Babylonian king by sending gold and slave labor but that will only last for so long. The Babylonian king is eventually gonna want to go and finish the job and take Jerusalem. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, we’re not there yet. What Jeremiah has been doing is warning the people, trying to give them hope in a hopeless situation, but everyone can see the writing on the wall, their days are numbered. It’s certainly a strange place to be in. As someone who has pastored a congregation through their death I can tell you first hand of the limbo that those final years, those final months, weeks, can be. For Jeremiah this wasn’t the worst of it though. He also had to contend with a wicked king who tried to thwart his every move, silence his every word, finally putting him in prison, barring him from the temple.

So, what is a prophet to do when his voice has been silenced? Become a writer! So with quill and scroll in hand, that’s exactly what he does! Jeremiah, with his trusty assistant Baruch, begins to write down all that God has told him to say to the people. Once completed, he tells Baruch to read it to the people in the temple, since he can’t go himself, and to do so on the busiest day in the temple. Baruch does as he’s asked, in spite of the fact that this very act could cost him his life as the king has killed for much lesser offenses. Once the king gets word of this, he sends his cronies to go get the scroll and bring it to him. When it finally arrives, the king is in his winter palace sitting by a fire to keep warm. I’m imagining this palace to be quite bare, a lonely, empty space that was once quite grand, furnished with the most expensive furnishings a king could have, especially this king whose ego, pride, and self-worth knew no bounds. But now, this once magnificent place is cold and bare and quite sad really, because you see, he’s sold everything the kingdom had to the Babylonian king. Sold it for more time on the throne, a throne that held little to no power anymore. And now there wasn’t anything left to sell, not even his soul.

So, in what can only be described as the most childish act any of the kings in the Bible made, king Jehoiakim has the scroll read out loud to him, but, after every paragraph or so, he’d stop the reader, take a scribe's knife, which was basically a little pen or exacto knife. He takes the knife and cuts out the section that was just read, but he doesn’t stop there. He takes the piece that he just cut and throws it into his fire. Turns to the reader and motions for him to read another paragraph and then does it all over again until each paragraph has been individually cut out and thrown into the fire. Now, just imagine for a moment the kind of character this guy is. Childish only begins to describe him, if not altogether a megalomaniac!

Unfortunately for baby king Jehoiakim, God instructs Jeremiah to write another one, and so he does, with Baruch’s help. The funny part is that this baby king Jehoiakim get immortalized forever in the very scripture that he tried to destroy, leaving a legacy that his father Josiah would not have been proud of. I love this quote from Daniel Barrigan in his book on Jeremiah, The World, The Wound of God, he writes, “Despite his wintry fires and hot furies—we have in hand the scripture he sought to destroy…The king’s winter fire is long extinguished. In that fire, in a vain gesture, he sought immunity from judgment. Like his fire, like his vain assault on the word of God, the king too is all but extinguished—a near nobody, a petty tyrant, raving, wreaking, tempestuous. His fretful, childish gesture, futilely standing against God’s word, is a case in vain against the winds of truth. Pity him.” Ouch. Imagine that being the legacy you leave.

Our reading ends with a selection from the scroll that baby king Jehoiakim tried to destroy and it is arguably the most important passage in the entire Hebrew Bible, particularly as we look forward to reading from the Gospels once again at the end of Advent. It’s a great set up for the coming of the messiah, even if they couldn’t quite understand that when Jeremiah and Baruch first wrote that scroll. This is the real gem of our reading, in spite of what baby king Jehoiakim would have had you believe. For you see, the selection that we read from that scroll contains the new covenant, the new promise that God made with God’s people. This was a covenant like no other. It was groundbreaking, not just for the Hebrew religion but for any religion of the day, of any day! So what makes this new covenant so new? Well, in two ways in particular.

Any other covenant, especially one between a god and humans, was a two-way street. Meaning, both parties had to hold up their end of the bargain, both had responsibilities to uphold. The success of a covenant was dependent on this, conditional. Not so with this new covenant. This new covenant was not dependent on humans behaving, because, well, we know how those kinds of covenants ended up. This new covenant was overflowing with unconditional love from God for God’s people. And no one or no thing could get in the way of that. The other way this was new was that it was for everyone, “from the least of them to the greatest” as God put it. This was not going to be dependent on age or gender or status or holiness or anything! This really was a new covenant, a new kind of promise between God and God’s people. And it was needed then more than ever.

The last remaining stronghold of God’s people in the Promised Land was about to fall to the Babylonian Empire. They would be exiled, scattered, without a home, without a temple, without their God, or at least, that’s the way it was going to feel. And this message of Jeremiah’s of a new covenant would be the lifeline that would get them through this. Without it, they would have been left with the thought that their God had abandoned them due to their bad behavior, just like the gods of the other nations would do. But not our God, our God always finds a way to remain with us, to love us, to forgive us, over and over, no matter what. None of us know what’s ahead for us. We never know if our worst years are behind us or ahead of us. But what we do know is this, that God will be with you, by your side, through it all, and nothing, not even our bad behavior, could keep God from us. That is the new covenant, the new promise, that Jeremiah brings us this day, and that Jesus exemplified so beautifully. But that’s for another story. Thanks be to God. Amen.

11/17/2020

Why Our Church is Still Worshiping Online

Our congregation has been extremely supportive of the ultra-safe stance we have taken regarding this pandemic. I have had a few conversations recently though that has led me to write my response down to that question that all us pastors have heard more times than we can count: “Any idea when we’ll go back to in-person worship?” The snarkist in me always wants to say, “Well, let me consult my magic ball and see.” But that would be unbecoming of a pastor, so I try to refrain. So, here are a few of my thoughts on what people are really asking, “Why are we still worshipping online when others have gone back to in-person worship?”

 An obligation to sacrificial love. As Christians, we have always lifted up the importance of love and how that love calls us to sacrifice at times, meaning that it calls us to give up things for the betterment of others. I’d say that 99% of my preaching is preparing my listeners for that very act of sacrificial love when the opportunity will arise, and it inevitably will arise. It often presents itself in small, seemingly insignificant ways. This pandemic, however, just happens to be a huge in-your-face opportunity to practice what we have been preparing for. Because this is what we have been preparing for, we just never know the form it will take: masks, sheltering in place, isolation, loneliness, economic strife, etc. “Pastor, would God call us to these things?!” If it means life for others…Yes.

 Worshipping in person is not worth the risk. Even if we take our love for neighbor out of the equation, what about our love for each other? A few months into the pandemic, I consulted other pastors both in and outside my denomination, especially those who were planning on returning to in-person worship. One pastor shared that the decision centered around the Eucharist and his parishioner’s need for it. He said, “It’s worth the risk.” My blood ran cold when he said that. In his defense, he belongs to a denomination that doesn’t allow online communion. Mine does (or at least, they don’t have the power to tell us no like his does.) Still, the Eucharist is important to us as well, but when I ask myself if Christ wants us to risk death to receive it, the answer is an easy “No.” Even if we weren’t allowed to do it online.

 We can’t control people. Nor would we want to, but this was a huge factor even when we decided to go to online worship back on March 15th. The CDC’s warning that people over 65 or who have health risks should stay home has not changed. However, even if we were to go back to in-person worship, I’ve had parishioners tell me straight up, “I know I’m high-risk Pastor, but when we go back, I’m coming!” Likewise, when we have tried socially-distanced events like a drive-by celebration parade for someone, no matter how clear we are with the rules, they get so excited to see each other that innocent, but very unsafe, rule-breaking ensues! Unfortunately, the virus cannot distinguish between what is an innocent mistake and what is willful disobedience. Nor does it care.

 We can’t live in fear. Now, I’ve heard this line used by people who think we should just go about our lives as usual and let nature take its course. The good ol’ Darwinistic herd-mentality. But there are other fears that we should be talking about, especially us churchy people. What do you think is one of the most prevalent fears that pastors have? Parishioners leaving the church. And this pandemic plays right into that fear. Will churches who remain online for worship lose parishioners to churches who’ve gone back to in-person worship? Maybe. Probably. Is it worth the loss to save lives? Most definitely. Even if it cost me my job? You bet. As a pastor, I am choosing to fear the loss of a parishioner to death at the hands of this virus more than fearing the loss of a parishioner due to them willingly leaving.

 Complicity. In a discussion with a couple of our youth about how social-distancing was going in school, because they had returned to in-person classes, they both shared the same story. During school hours social-distancing is held fairly well. Before and after school, however, it goes out the window: masks come off, crowds accumulate, and kids head to their favorite hang-out spots. Do these schools think they are not complicit in this behavior? They are the gathering entity! Likewise, when churches hold in-person worship and people break the rules before, during, or after worship, do they say, “Well, that’s on them!” and then wash their hands clean of it, acknowledging no act of complicity? They were the gathering entity! They were the ones that called people out of the safety of their homes and into a risky environment full of temptations! I think there’s a Bible verse or two or three about tempting others or stumbling blocks or something, isn’t there? And there I go getting snarky again. 

Other than articulating this in writing for parishioners who may not fully understand the hardline some churches have taken on pandemic safety measures, my hope is that this might also be helpful to other pastors as they continue to process this with their parishioners in the loving conversations I know they are having with them. I’d also love to hear what you would add to this list! In the meantime, my heart goes with all of you as you practice what has been preached for so long: sacrifice and love, law and gospel, death and life, challenge and hope.  

Peace be with you. 


P.S. My apologies to any church leaders who read this and felt judged. I know that whatever decisions you've made or will make are difficult and filled with love. My heart goes with you all.

 

Pastor Ron Valadez 

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Auburn CA

11/15/2020

Words Matter

 Inspired by Isaiah 6:1-8

It seems like forever now that the election has been on our minds and on the news and of course all over social media. I’ve seen a curious meme floating around in reference to it. Sometimes it says, “No matter who wins the election, God is still on the throne.” And sometimes it just says, “God is still on the throne” with stars and stripes around it, in clear reference to the political atmosphere of the day. Whatever iteration it comes in, I’m always puzzled by it. I always want to ask the sharer, “What does that mean exactly?” But of course, I never do, because I typically don’t argue politics or religion online. I still wonder though, what do they mean by, “God is still on the throne”, especially in reference to the election? Do they mean that God is somehow in control of the election? Probably not. I’m guessing that it’s meant more in the general sense, but even that is problematic. What do people mean when they acknowledge God being on God’s throne? What do people mean when they say that God is in control? We have lots of cute little phrases for it, don’t we! Like, “Let go and let God” or “Just leave it in God’s hands.” Again, what does that even mean? What are we really saying here? Do people imagine that God is somehow behind the scenes of everything, pulling strings and levers, making sure we turn right instead of left? Is that really how we think God works? Is that what people imagine when they share, “God is still on the throne” all over Facebook?

Our Bible story from Isaiah that we have today is short but don’t let that fool you. It’s quite a story, jam-packed with some really vivid imagery. It’s another call story, which we have had the fortune of reading quite a few of this Fall. This time it’s Isaiah’s call story. This one’s a little unique in that he had already been doing the work of a prophet before this. But in this story, Isaiah gets a direct vision from God, and a specific message to share with God’s people. Not only that, but Isaiah volunteers! You heard that right, what we have here a bonafide volunteer prophet! We’re so used to prophets who come to their first day of orientation kicking and screaming and complaining and giving every excuse as to why they’re the worst person for this job! He doesn’t do so arrogantly, which we will get to in a minute, but how refreshing to have one that actually volunteers! And here’s why he may have done that.

This story comes from chapter six of Isaiah. In the first five chapters, Isaiah had been sharing oracle after oracle of all the doom that was headed their way. There were some hopeful verses thrown in there too but it was mostly doom and gloom. It was about to get real bad for the kingdom of Judah, worse than they could have possibly imagined. So, after relaying that message for five chapters, Isaiah is given this vision of God’s throne room. It’s a majestic scene! God is sitting high on a throne wearing a huge robe, the hem of which fills the whole room. Winged creatures, called Seraphim, each with six wings, are flying about the room as they cover their eyes and feet, shouting “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory” as the room shook and filled with smoke. Like I said, vivid imagery. Those words they were shouting might sound familiar to you, we sing them right before communion, right before we too come into the presence of God in the bread and wine. Sidenote, most pastors close their eyes during this part, in the same way that the Seraphim covered theirs, and in recognition of the majesty and mystery of what we are about to partake in. Just a little liturgical trivia for ya, but back to our story.

At the end of our reading, God asks, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?”, which is curious in and of itself but we’ll leave that discussion for Wednesday evening’s Bible discussion. Who responds to God’s question? Isaiah does, “I’m here,” he says, “send me”, cementing his position in many a stained-glass window ever since. Now, we don’t read this passage very often, and even when we do it’s rarely preached on, but when we do, the emphasis is often on God’s majesty in the throne room, or on Isaiah’s courageous volunteerism, and how we should be more like Isaiah. Neither are wrong, but neither are what drew my attention this time ‘round. What drew my attention was that middle scene, where Isaiah, in what I believe was genuine humility, acknowledges his unclean lips, and how they might get in the way of what God may need him to do. Immediately, in flies a seraph to save the day with a hot coal that the seraph touches Isaiah’s lips with saying, “Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.”

It's a very strange scene, the meaning of which scholars have debated for millennia. There’s one theory in particular though, that really moved me, that I’d like to share with you now, because I believe that it has profound modern-day applications. So, this lip cleansing ritual was a very common ritual in many different religions of the day. Whether we like to admit this or not, rituals often were shared by many religions, like baptismal rituals, eating rituals, marriage rituals, and the like. This may very well have been another shared ritual. Mouth or lip cleansing rituals came in a variety of shapes and sizes but the general idea was this, if the mouth or lips were clean, then the whole body was clean. Let that sink in for a moment while I give you two modern-day rituals that might help you put this into perspective.

When people join our church, one of the rituals that we use at the beginning of their journey with us is called the Welcome Rite. During this ritual, the sign of the cross is traced on various parts of their body with corresponding words, such as, “That you may bear the gentle yoke of Christ, receive the cross on your shoulders.” As well as, and this is the part that our story reminded me of, “That you may sing the praise of Christ, the joy of the church, receive the cross on your lips.” Each year, the receivers of this rite always share with us just how meaningful it is. So that’s one modern example of a lip cleansing ritual, but it also reminded me of a Maundy Thursday’s foot washing, and Jesus words that “those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean”, furthering this idea that ritually cleansing one part of the body, makes the whole body clean, just like Isaiah’s lips being cleansed by that red hot coal.

Now let’s take this a step further. You know that old saying, “Actions speak louder than words.” As much as that may be true sometimes, this story is saying just the opposite, and holds just as much truth. This story exclaims a message that is oh so vital for us today, and that message is this: words matter. I don’t think it was just a coincidence that the seraph cleansed Isaiah’s lips in order to forgive his sins, as if the seraph could have chosen any part of the body. No, Isaiah’s ministry, like most prophets, was going to entail the use of many words by the prophet, many painful words for God’s people to hear. Words were going to be the vehicle that both God’s judgment and God’s grace would be delivered by, and so, words matter. Or as Jesus put it so succinctly, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth that defiles a person.”

If this election season has taught us anything, I hope that it is at least that words matter. If we hold words in such high regard when we are spreading the good news, then we ought to fear their power just as much when they are used for destructive purposes. Do you remember when we used to say on the playground, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” Bull! Names hurt, words hurt, and the pain that words inflict can last a lifetime. Isaiah knew that. Jesus knew that. And I think we do too, we just forget sometimes and need reminded by a great prophet like Isaiah. This Bible story carries with it both challenge and grace. The challenge here is to ask ourselves just how clean our lips have been. Do we need a seraph to come with a hot coal before proceeding with what God is calling us to? The grace here is that God loved and used Isaiah’s gifts even before this throne room scene. And if God can call Isaiah, unclean lips and all, God can call us to, and God does. Thanks be to God. Amen.

11/08/2020

Inclusivity Saves the Day!

Inspired by Jonah

I love storms, big rolling thunderstorms with lightning and all. I sure miss those. Don’t get me wrong, I love California, it’s where my deepest roots are, but after living in Pennsylvania for 18 years, I have roots there as well that will probably never die. And one of the things I miss about Pennsylvania is those huge storms that we’d get there. My girls and I would sit on the porch and watch them until the lightning got so close that even we’d get scared! I don’t know why we love storms so much. Maybe it’s the power of a storm, the controlled chaos of a storm, or maybe it’s the providence of a storm, bringing rain to the earth and thereby life to the earth. Whatever it is, when I hear the word storm, it immediately has a positive connotation to it. It brings the warm fuzzies to my heart right away, especially now after a long dry California summer.

Of course, there are many kinds of storms, aren’t there! Some of the not so positive variety. First, there are the literal storms that bring destruction and death: hurricanes, tornados, monsoons, hail, heavy rain, wind, lightning, blizzards. All of which can bring floods, fire, and like I said, destruction and death. And then there are other kinds of storms. Storms of the less literal kind. Storms in your life that can bring chaos, fear, panic, sadness, loss, as well as destruction and death too. These storms can be just as overwhelming as the literal kind, I’d say even more so. And right now, many of us are feeling like we have multiple storms coming from multiple directions! The pandemic storm is coming at us from the east. The election storm is coming at us from the west. The economic crisis is coming at us from the north. And those are just the storms coming if you’re lucky! But if you’re from a disenfranchised group there’s a whole host of other storms that some have to deal with. If you’re from the LGBTQ+ community, you have a homophobic storm coming at ya. If you’re a person of color, you have a racist storm coming at ya. If you’re a woman, you have a sexist storm coming at ya! So many storms for us to navigate through! It’s easy to see how we can relate to the sailors from our story for today as we cry out, “What the hell, God? What do we gotta do to get out of these storms!”

So, with all that unpleasantness in mind, let’s jump into this story of Jonah. Probably one of the most widely known parables of the Hebrew scriptures, even the non-religious know of the story of the man that got swallowed by a big fish and survived, or whale, depending on how you first heard it. Before we jump in though, let’s catch ourselves up real quick like. Last week we read the story of the beginning of the prophet Elijah’s ministry in the northern kingdom of Israel. And with this story of Jonah, not only are we still in the northern kingdom, but we are now fully entrenched in the time of the prophets, and will remain here through Advent until we get to our Gospel readings for the year which will be from Luke. The prophets play all kinds of roles as God’s people stumble their way through their faith journey with God. Their prophets will challenge them, judge them, warn them, as well as encourage them, and give them hope that not even they understood fully. To be a prophet in that day is not as different as our ministry is today as we’d think, but that’s for another sermon.

The thing to keep in mind about the story of Jonah is that the story is not really about Jonah, it’s about God. This tiny little four-chapter book is really a commentary on who God is, especially in light of the fact that God’s people were realizing that they didn’t really like who they had become. A journey we’ve all taken, right! So, the book starts out with God asking Jonah to go to Nineveh and basically warn them that God’s judgment was coming due to their bad behavior. Now, right off the bat, the original readers of this story knew that something was off, something was different, if not altogether wrong. Because, you see, Nineveh is not in Israel, it’s not even in the southern kingdom of Judah. Nineveh is in Assyria! In fact, it’s the capital city of one of Israel’s vilest enemies! If this was a Star Wars story they would be the Empire! If this was a Star Trek story they would be the Borg! If this was a Lord of the Rings story they would be Mordor! Wo, I am a nerd, but you get my meaning, right? The Assyrians were the ones who first conquered Israel and began their long captivity! So, why in the world would God send Jonah to warn these vile Assyrians about anything? We don’t find that out until the end so let’s keep moving.

So, what does Jonah do? The exact opposite of what God just said of course! Jonah tries to escape God’s reach by booking passage on a ship going in the opposite direction as Nineveh. Why? Again, the author doesn’t reveal that until the end, so we just gotta keep moving. A storm to end all storms hits the ship, and the sailors, desperate to save their lives, throw Jonah overboard, which by the way, was Jonah’s idea, which speaks to just how disconnected Jonah was. I’m not sure if he was suicidal, if he wanted to be a martyr and sacrifice himself for these strangers, or if he was suffering from depression, who knows. Any way you slice it, Jonah seems to be in a very bad place. Disconnected from life itself. Which makes sense because he’s trying to disconnect himself from God. Not only is he in the midst of the worst storm of his life, and I’m not talking about the literal storm here, but he’s trying to go through that alone. A recipe for disaster that any one of us could have told him. Poor Jonah. My heart goes out to him but we can’t stop there because there’s something even bigger at work here than Jonah.

The sailors throw him overboard and instead of God just letting Jonah die for his disobedience, God saves him. A big fish swallows him and keeps him in the tender care of her belly until God tells her to vomit him out onto the beach. Jonah probably thinks this whole debacle is over with and that now he can just go back home and resume whatever it is an unemployed prophet does because anything is better than that Nineveh plan of God’s was! Unfortunately for Jonah, while the seawater is still dripping from his beard, God says, “Actually, I still need you to go to Nineveh and do what I asked you to do.” I can just see him roll his eyes like a rebellious teenager who thought he got the best of mom but didn’t! So, off Jonah goes to Nineveh, realizing that trying to get out of this is futile, and does what God originally asked him to do, warn the Assyrians of God’s impending judgment. Their response? They make a complete 180 and commit themselves to ending their evil ways! God’s response? God seems pleased with their change of heart, changes God’s mind, and God takes that finger off the doom button!

This is when we finally figure out what all this is about! The final chapter opens by stating how furious Jonah is with God and this whole Nineveh business! At first, he doesn’t believe it and goes outside the city with a bucket of popcorn for a nice view of their destruction! But it never comes! Jonah’s furious! Why? Because those evil Assyrians had it coming to them! If anyone deserved God’s judgment, it was them! This was why he didn’t want to go to Nineveh in the first place! Because he knew how compassionate, forgiving, and loving God could be! And he didn’t want to risk the possibility that God would forgive those vile people of Nineveh! God sets him straight with an analogy of a shade tree but basically tells him, “I’m God, and as God, I can do whatever I want to do, can forgive whoever I want to forgive, can pity whoever I want to pity! Period!” And that’s just what God did.

Unfortunately, we don’t hear any more from Jonah. We don’t get to find out if he has a change of heart and agrees with God’s love and forgiveness. My guess? He doesn’t. Similar to the parable of the Rich Young Ruler that Jesus taught, I’m imagining that he walked away, head down, in utter disbelief. Because, remember, this story is not about Jonah, it’s about something bigger. Jonah represented who God’s people had become, a narrow-minded, exclusive, judgmental, xenophobic, people who had lost touch with whose they were and what their purpose was. And so, this story in particular comes as a huge slap in the face to all that they had become, a people who thought that God’s love was exclusively theirs, and that exclusivity becomes their downfall.

Now, here’s where it gets real interesting! The outsiders in this tale, are just the opposite! The sailors and the Assyrian people of Nineveh, are the most inclusive people you’d ever meet! Think about it, on that ship, those sailors didn’t care that Jonah came from a different land or had a different God. They were completely open to the possibility that Jonah’s God could get them out of their predicament, even though their own gods could not. They even prayed to Jonah’s God! And their inclusiveness is what saved them. Likewise, the people of Nineveh could have thrown Jonah and his weird God out on the streets, or worse, they could have strung him up by his neck outside the city walls. After all, they were the villainous Assyrians, right? But that’s not what they do. In fact, they turn out to be even more inclusive than those sailors! Jonah preaches to them about his own God and the destruction that could befall them due to their bad behavior, and they listen! More than that, they obey! And just like those sailors, their inclusiveness is what saves them. Had they been unwilling to even listen to an outsider and his God, the story would have turned out quite different.

Again, my heart goes out to Jonah, especially because I was once like him. I didn’t understand how God could love certain people. I didn’t understand how God could look past certain behaviors. I didn’t understand how God could love people that couldn’t love. I just didn’t understand God. I eventually got there but not without a fight and a whole lot of kicking and screaming. But the story of Jonah doesn’t point to us, just like it doesn’t point to Jonah, it points us to a God whose love is farther reaching than we could imagine, or sometimes even want; it points to a God whose forgiveness is so powerful, it can make the most faithful person jealous; it points to a God whose inclusivity can boggle the mind; it points to a God that we are called to share with others, whether we want to or not. Why? Because there are many people caught in many storms out there. And like Jonah, even when those storms come to us, our call remains the same, maybe even more so because we know what it’s like to be caught in a storm, and thanks be to God for that. Amen.