Monday, July 16, 2018

July 15, 2018 Job: Keeping the Faith When Life Falls Apart

When I was in college I was often overwhelmed by the amount of reading we were assigned. In Humanities class, for instance, we had about a week to read "Crime and Punishment," which seemed to me about 50,000 pages long. Some years after finishing school, I decided to go back and read some of those books assigned in college that I either didn’t finish or never started, which was most of them, and I found many of them to be very interesting and insightful. One of the books we were assigned was Aldous Huxley’s "Brave New World," which set a template for books about a dystopian future, such as "Divergent" and "The Hunger Games," if you have read any of those.
"Brave New World" is fascinating in several ways, but mostly because of the way in which it portrays a world of the future, which is as a place where all suffering is absent. The world of the future, in Huxley’s novel, was portrayed as a place where every person would have everything they need, everything they wanted, and are always satisfied and always comfortable. What is especially interesting is that Huxley paints such a world not as ideal, but as a very bleak place. In Huxley’s future world we see not a utopia, but a place that is bleak and undesirable. The novel raises some interesting questions, such as can we truly appreciate companionship if we have never known loneliness? Can we truly appreciate bounty if we have never been in need? Can we truly appreciate love if we have never felt unloved? Can life be as rich and as meaningful if we have not known suffering and difficulty?
This morning we begin a series of four messages from the book of Job, a book that leads us to think very deeply and carefully about the difficulties and the suffering we experience in life. As we journey through this series I should note that this is not the first time we have studied the topic of suffering. I return to this topic every few years for a couple of reasons – first, because I am continually asked about the question of suffering. Of all the Biblical, spiritual, and theological questions I am asked, I am most often asked variations of the same question, and that question is "why do people – especially good people – suffer?" And, second, we return to the book of Job because people are constantly in the midst of suffering, and Job offers some very helpful words of wisdom. You are in one of three places in regard to suffering this morning – you have suffered in the past, and you are perhaps still dealing with the consequences of that suffering; you are now enduring a time of suffering; or you will suffer.
The book of Job asks us to confront one of the most difficult aspects of what it means to be human – that we will struggle and suffer – and Job gives us an interesting view of that suffering and those struggles. And though on the surface the book of Job doesn’t appear to give us many specific answers, I believe that when we dig a bit deeper we find there are some very important answers contained in his story.
The book of Job is not an easy study, as we will see, and some of what it has to tell us is tough to hear. Not everything in these messages will be easy to hear or consider, but if I said that your life would always be great and always be wonderful I would be lying to you, and I don’t want to lie to you, and I don’t think you want me to lie to you.
Our text for this morning is the first twelve verses of chapter one of Job. I encourage you to take time in the coming days and weeks to read through the entire book of Job, especially if you have never done so.

Job1:1-12 –

1 In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.
2 He had seven sons and three daughters,
3 and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. He was the greatest man among all the people of the East.
4 His sons used to hold feasts in their homes on their birthdays, and they would invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them.
5 When a period of feasting had run its course, Job would make arrangements for them to be purified. Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, “Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s regular custom.
6 One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them.
7 The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”
8 Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”
9 “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied.
10 “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land.
11 But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”
12 The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.” Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.

That’s an interesting setting, isn’t it? The book of Job is a lengthy book and we are spending only four weeks on it, so there are a lot of things contained in the book of Job, such as this opening setting, that we will not have time to consider.
There are, to begin with, three basic sources of suffering –
Suffering as a consequence of our own actions.
Suffering as a consequence of the actions of others.
Suffering as a consequences of…we don’t really know what. This category catches all the other causes of suffering, many of which we do not understand.
Job did not suffer as a result of anything he did or as a result of anything done by anyone else. Job’s suffering was a test, and the test that Job faced was one that would reveal whether or not his faith was real or just a product of his blessed life. In their conversation about Job, Satan (or, as we would find in the Hebrew language, the satan, which means the accuser or the adversary) says to God, "have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face" (verses 10 – 11). That’s an interesting test. What happens to our faith when it is tested by adversity? Will our faith withstand the test – the adversity – or will it whither and die?
Here are some lessons to remember, lessons that we learn from Job and his experience –

1. Suffering is not always a negative, even though we see it is as one.
Sometimes we hear the phrase "entitlement mentality" bandied about in our culture. "Entitlement mentality" is a phrase generally used to critique people, but here’s the truth – we all feel entitled. Who doesn’t think "I’m a good person. I try to help others. I work hard and take care of my family. I do what is right. I’ve not hurt anyone. Why should I, then, have to suffer? Shouldn’t I be exempt from suffering and hardship, because of my goodness?" Well, no, because that is not how life works. We might feel entitled to a blessed life that is free of tragedy and suffering, but we will not be exempt, and it’s a sign of our tremendously blessed lives that we have come to think life should be free of difficulty. And don’t get me wrong; I wish life could always be filled with blessing and be free of tragedy and suffering, but that is just not going to happen. There is no hedge of protection we can build around our lives that will save us from the difficulties of life, and the Bible does not guarantee a trouble-free life. Somehow, a lot of people have the idea that the Bible does promise a trouble-free life (and that is one of my primary contentions with the so-called "prosperity gospel," but that is a topic for another time). Just a cursory reading of the Bible reveals that difficulty and struggle are a part of life. Job, for instance, did everything right. He left nothing to chance, even offering sacrifices on behalf of his children in the event they had done something wrong. So why should Job have to be subjected to suffering? And, more importantly, what would be his response?
What Job has to teach us – even though it seems counter-intuitive – is that suffering is not always a negative, even though we see it is as one. The theologian Barbara Brown Taylor writes, in an April 28, 2014 cover article of Time magazine, of the importance – even the necessity – of struggle, writing that "contemporary spirituality is too feel-good, that darkness holds more lessons than light and that contrary to what many of us have long believed, it is sometimes in the bleakest void that God is nearest" (page 38).
My generation, the Baby Boomer generation, has often committed a very unfortunate error, and it is this – when our parents or grandparents talked about their experiences in the Great Depression, we rolled our eyes. It’s true, isn’t it? We rolled our eyes and made jokes about the stories we were going to hear once again. Why did we do that? We should instead have admired and sought to emulate the great strength and character of that generation. The sufferings and difficulties they endured produced in them a strength of faith and character they have modeled throughout their lives, and it is a strength of faith and character that is not as strong, I fear, in subsequent generations. That generation learned that through suffering and struggle we are shaped in very important ways – positive ways, especially – because it true what we read in I Peter 1:1-7 (part of today’s Call to Worship) – "In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed."
Struggles are also helpful in that they plant hope within us, and hope is an absolute necessity in life. I find hope in all manner of places, even in somewhere as simple as the mailbox. For some reason, I look forward to going to the mailbox every day. Does anybody else get excited about going to the mailbox? Since I was young, I have always been excited about getting the mail. Our house was a long way from the road (about 100 or 150 yards), and I remember in the summer, at this time of year, I enjoyed the long walk up our dusty driveway to the mailbox. On a hot summer day, I would meander up the driveway, maybe stopping at the apple tree a little past halfway for a snack, and then on to the mailbox. Why that was exciting to me, I don’t know, because I wasn’t receiving any mail back then. But I had hope, hope there would be something there for me when I opened the mailbox. Even though we don’t receive mail today, on Sunday, when I pull in our driveway when I get home I will feel the urge to check the mailbox. I don’t know why I have this hopeful feeling about the mail, because it’s almost exclusively junk mail, bills, and piles of credit card offers, but I always have hope. Maybe tomorrow will be the day that somehow, some great news will arrive in the mail. Or, even better, I’ll open the mailbox and find a big check waiting on me. I have absolutely no idea why I would expect to get a big check in the mail, but there’s always hope.
Weddings are certainly declarations of hope. A wedding is a declaration of hope that two people can build a life together, build a home and family, and help one another navigate and survive the struggles and difficulties that come their way. I’ve done a lot of weddings over the years, and one my favorites was a wedding for the oldest couple I’ve married. I have a picture of Thelma and Bill in my office, taken on the day of their wedding, when they were 89 and 87 years old. I love their story because they had some Job-like moments in their lives. Thelma and Bill first met as students years ago at Georgetown College. They dated a few times but after graduating life took them in different directions. They both met other people whom they married and the years went by. Thelma and her husband, many years ago, were coming home from a trip to Florida and stopped at a rest area to stretch their legs. As Thelma’s husband was walking he was struck by a car and killed. Thelma’s loss was devastating but she was sustained by faith and the love of family and friends. Bill had also experienced loss, as his wife passed away and he was alone for years. Then, late in their lives, Bill and Thelma met again at a college reunion, they started dating, and were married. I doubt that they ever could have expected they would get married in their late 80s, but one day a small group of us gathered and were blessed by this beautiful experience of their late-in-life wedding. They had about two years together before Bill passed away, and not many months after Bill’s passing I officiated at Thelma’s funeral. I had known Thelma much longer than I did Bill, but I was greatly touched by both of their lives. After all the ups and downs of life they found so much joy and happiness. It was a great ending to the story of their lives, and a wonderful story of hope.
I will go ahead and tell you that the story of Job has a happy ending, as Job held to his faith. The adversity that Job faced did not crush his faith, but made it stronger. This is one of the truths of suffering. Suffering will produce one of two results in regards to faith – either the weakening of faith or the strengthening of faith. For Job, the happy ending did not minimize the pain of his loss, just as the happiness that Thelma and Bill found didn’t minimize the difficulties and losses they had suffered over the years, but though suffering and hardship is going to happen, the good news is that it does not have to break us, it does not have to bring us to despair, and it does not have the final word in our lives. This, God has promised.

2. Struggle brings a focus and clarity to life that is not present in times of blessing.
Philip Yancey has written numerous books, many of which I have read and found very helpful. Yancey says that one of the lessons of suffering is that suffering actually gives us the opportunity to focus on what matters most. Yancey learned that lesson through his own suffering. He was involved in a very serious car accident, where his neck was broken, and as a result of that fracture Yancey’s doctors initially feared that a bone fragment had pierced a major artery, which, if true, meant he only had a few minutes to live. During the time the doctors were trying to determine whether or not the artery was severed, Yancey said he could only think of three questions worth contemplating – "Who do I love? What have I done with my life? Am I ready for whatever is next?" It was a moment of extreme clarity, and it is powerful to think, isn’t it, that tragedy or suffering can waken us to some realities that we might not otherwise consider. Suffering can bring a moment of such clarity that we will suddenly take away that grudge we have held against someone for so long. It will allow us to offer forgiveness we have withheld or ask for the forgiveness we need. It will allow us to let go of bitterness that has poisoned our soul. It will allow our hearts to awaken to love in a way we had previously not allowed. It will allow us to see our family, our friends, our blessings, and all the good things in our lives in a deeper and richer way.
There is something about living in blessing that simply does not provide us with the sense of clarity and focus that comes in a time of suffering. Again, I would not wish suffering upon anyone, but I very firmly believe that we need those moments of clarity and focus.

3. Don’t be broken by suffering.
A number of years ago I had a conversation with a man who had experienced some very difficult losses. I spoke to him shortly after officiating at the funeral of his 41-year-old son. Not too many months before I had officiated at the funeral of his wife, the second time he had experienced such a loss. He was a good man, and he was really struggling with his grief, and the anger that came from his grief, an anger which in that moment overwhelmed him. He quoted Matthew 7:9, where Jesus says “which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?" That verse was part of our Call to Worship last Sunday, and they are a reminder of God’s goodness, love, and care. That father was having a difficult time accepting such a promise in that moment, and he looked at me, with tears in his eyes, and speaking from a broken heart said, "all God has given me is a bag of rocks."
What do you say in such a moment? Elisabeth Kubler-Ross taught us in her landmark book, "On Death and Dying," that there are stages to grief, one of which is anger. We cannot deny that anger and it is not wrong to express it, even at God. This man was right to be hurt, and to be angry, as he had experienced such heartbreaking loss. He was a good man who lived well, but his good life did not insulate him from the harsh reality of burying two wives and a son. And he was understandably angry, and he needed to express that anger rather than hold it in, lest it poison his soul. Job was hurt and angry as well. Job was also a good man, but his good life did not insulate him from suffering. But we cannot – we must now – live forever in our anger and are hurt. Here is a harsh reality – whatever goodness is in my life – or yours – it will not insulate you, or me, from suffering, which will come. I don’t say that to discourage you or to send you out of here today saying, wow, "Dave was a real downer today, wasn’t he?" I say that as a reminder that when suffering and difficulty comes, it need not – it must not – break us. Job could not understand why he had experienced such tragedy and loss. That is an understandable reaction, but here is an important truth – even though we all, at some point, live in a place of heartbreak and even anger, we cannot stay there. We cannot allow the difficulty of suffering to break us.
I spent yesterday in jail. My band was part of an event at the jail in Jeffersonville, Indiana. We were there, all day, to play music for the men and women and to have a time of ministry with them. I have participated in many prison ministry events over the years, as I believe it is one of the important works Jesus calls us to do, and there are always some remarkable moments that take place. One of those moments yesterday was in realizing how many of those involved in the ministry event had previously been incarcerated, some of them in that prison. Both chaplains who helped to organize the event were recovering addicts and former prisoners. One of them remarked that at one point in his life he couldn’t wait to get out of that jail and there he was, spending most of his days working in that jail. Many of those who were there to minister were also recovering alcoholics and addicts and were sharing how long they had been clean and sober. When asked how long they had been clean and sober, various answers were offered – "I’ve been clean for 8 years! I’ve been clean for 15 years! I’ve been clean over 20 years!" Someone asked me, "Dave, how long have you been clean and sober?" My reply was, "61 years next month!" (FYI – I will be 61 years old next month, and have always been clean and sober, just in case you wondered). A young man who played in one of the other bands had a powerful story to share. He was, I would say, in this late 20s, and he told the residents, "I’ve been where you are. I met Jesus in solitary confinement just down the road, in the prison in New Albany. He did not have to find me, because he was there with me, but I found him. I got down on my knees in the cell and asked him to save me." I’m telling you, that was a powerful moment, and he had the attention of his audience. The message we all shared yesterday was this – no walls can keep you away from God. These walls of concrete and steel cannot keep God out. God is here with you, and he loves you. But it’s not just walls of concrete and steel that we must deal with. We erect spiritual, psychological, and emotional walls, and they are walls that can keep others out, but they do not keep God out of our lives. Whoever we are, wherever we are, God loves us. Whatever has happened to us in life, whatever suffering and hardship we have experienced, God loves us and cares about us.
When it comes to our suffering and our difficulties, we often ask "why?" I would say that why is the wrong question to ask. I think we need to ask questions that begin with other words, such as what – "what will we do with and learn from our struggles and our sufferings?" And "who will we turn to that can, and will, lift us back up again?"

Whatever you are carrying around because of your suffering, whatever hurt or bitterness there might be…don’t let it break you!

Monday, July 09, 2018

July 8, 2018 Jonah: The Compassion of God

For many years I thought of myself as being fairly literate when it comes to technology.  I’ve realized in more recent years that if I ever was, I am no longer.  Part of it may be my impatience at learning new things.  I don’t like to read user manuals and I don’t like to spend time learning how to operate a new device.  I learn the few basics so I can operate the device and that’s about it.  So I’m often surprised when I learn something new.  I remember learning a while back about a feature of my phone that I did not know existed.  If you push the home button twice it shows all the apps that are running in the background.  I checked it yesterday and there were 56 different apps running, all of which were using power and memory and affecting the operation of my phone in ways of which I was not aware.

I think there is a spiritual parallel to those apps running in the background.  I believe there are, for lack of a better word, “apps” that run in the back of our minds, operating like a software program, telling us how to act and think.  Those “apps” are a combination of our experiences, our influences, what we have been taught, and a collection of other factors.  Those “apps” determine how we see people, how we see the world, and how we think about things in general.  What this means is that you and I may not be the independent thinkers we believe ourselves to be.  We have been conditioned to see ourselves, to see others, and even to see God in particular ways and here is what we need to understand about those “apps” – much of the time, we are not aware those “apps” are running in the background of our minds and we are not aware of how much power those “apps” exert over our thinking.  Some of them are powerful for the good, and some of them, the not so good.

As we conclude our series of the book of Jonah this morning, I think it’s fair to say that Jonah had some very faulty “apps” at work in his heart and mind.  They were “apps” that caused him to look upon the Ninevites in a negative way.  But it wasn’t just the way in which he thought of the Ninevites; it was also the way in which he thought of God.  Jonah wanted God to deal with the Ninevites in a way that suited Jonah, not God.  Jonah, we will see, was not at all pleased with the way God chose to deal with the people of Nineveh.  What Jonah needed to learn was The Compassion of God.

Follow along with me as I read the fourth and final chapter of Jonah, although we will start with the final verse of chapter three, because that is what causes Jonah’s angry outburst in chapter four.

Jonah 3:10 – 4:11 –

10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring the destruction he had threatened.

1 But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.
Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city.
Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant.
But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered.
When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”  “It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
10 But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight.
11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

Chapter four begins by telling us that Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.  Why?  What terrible calamity came about to make Jonah angry?  What terrible condition of the wrold stirred his anger?  What great injustice took place to bring about such anger?  Jonah was angry for a really, really bad reason.  Here’s what he says in verse 2, and you can almost see him stamping his feet and throwing a fit as he says it – is this not what I said when I was still at home?  That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish.  I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.  Jonah, amazingly, is angry about God being a God of love and compassion.

Jonah did not flee to Tarshish because of fear or anxiety about the task God gave to him.  Jonah did not flee because of any personal hardship he might experience.  Jonah did not flee because he felt ill-equipped for his task.  Jonah fled because he did not want to see God demonstrate love and compassion.  Think about that for a moment.  What Jonah wanted was not compassion, but a ring-side seat to a Sodom and Gomorrah style destruction of a people he detested.  I have to admit that I’ve not always had the most positive attitude about some people, but I try to keep that to myself, because I recognize it’s wrong to feel that way.  Jona, however, didn’t even have the good sense to keep quiet about how he felt.  He blurted out his feelings to God with no hesitation and he lacked the good sense to be embarrrassed about his outburst. 

Jonah’s complaint is especially tragic because he’s doing more than simply objecting to God’s actions.  The folly of Jonah’s complaint is that he is actually objecting to the very nature of God.  It is God’s nature to be compassionate and loving, and Jonah knew this, and because God was prone to compassion and love, Jonah wanted nothing to do with the mission he was given.  Sadly, it wasn’t that Jonah did not understand the nature of God; he understood it very well – he just rejected it.

I have stated several times during this series that Jonah is not a very sympathetic character, and we become painfully aware of what a tragic figure Jonah is as we read chapter four.  This chapter gives a very stark comparison between God and Jonah.  God is loving and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, while Jonah gleefully anticipates the destruction of the large city of Nineveh.  He was rooting for it.  He was hoping for it.  And he was greatly disappointed when it did not happen.
So, as we wrap up our brief study of the book of Jonah, here are a couple of thoughts to remember –

We don’t get to determine who is worthy of love and compassion; God does.

If you’re a parent, at some point you’ve dealt with an angry, petulant child.  Perhaps it was in a check-out line or other public place, where the child decides to have a fit that comes complete with the stamping of feet, crossed arms, pouting lips, and an angry outburst.  That’s Jonah.  Jonah decided he should be the judge and jury for the Ninevites, revealing that Jonah had some really, really faulty religion in him.  Here is something important to remember – being religious does not guarantee a person will be compassionate.  It should, but it does not.  There is, sadly, many examples of the reality that religion does not automatically bring about compassion.  We see far too many examples of the angry, judgmental face of religion.  You’ve seen that side of religion.  It’s the pointing finger, the red face, the shouting at people of whom it disapproves, refusing to show an ounce of compassion. 

To become a compassionate person sometimes requires a very pronounced change in our nature – a new nature – which is possible, as Paul reminds us as he writes II Corinthians 5:17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!  And in Romans 12:2, where Paul writes and do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. 

No one is outside of God’s love.

We live in a very contentious, divided time.  We often hear the word tribalism to describe the manner in which we gather in groups of like-minded people.  We separate ourselves and gather according to beliefs, politics, economics, and many other factors.  Because we are often uncomfortable with differences, we associate with those who are similar to us.  In doing so, however, we can become skeptical of those who are different from us, even to the point of becoming less than compassionate or loving in our dealings with those who are different.

Jonah did not approve of the manner in which God loves.  He wanted judgment and punishment, not grace, compassion, and mercy.  Jonah wanted to shrink the circle of God’s love, allowing in only those of whom he approved.  There are still too many people who want to shrink the circle of God’s love, but however much they might want to shrink the circle, God wants to expand it, or do away with the circle all together.  Paul says that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all on in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).  Those were the divisions of Paul’s day, and they were very deep divisions between people. I think we can extrapolate that idea out and say that today there is no black, white, Hispanic, right, left, American, Russian, Iranian, South African, gay, straight; pick a category of people who make you uncomfortable and know that God loves them as much as he does you or me.

Even in the early church there was a struggle with understanding God’s love for all people.  As Gentiles were coming into the church in large numbers there was quite a bit of discussion about what would be required of them before they would be fully accepted into the church.  Acts chapter 15 tells us about a gathering in Jerusalem, known as the Council at Jerusalem, to discuss the issue.  Imagine, having a gathering to discuss who would be welcome into the church!  Thankfully, it was decided to welcome people into the church regardless of their background!

Jonah did not believe the Ninevites were worthy of God’s love.  It was not, however, Jonah’s decision to determine who was worthy of God’s love.  There are always people who want to serve as gatekeepers to God.  It was true in the time of Jesus, as the religious leaders appointed themselves gatekeepers to God, seeing themselves as the ones who would decide who God loved and did not love, and it still happens today.

If love is foundational to the nature of God, so it must be for us.

Jonah has been gone for many centuries, but in some ways he is still with us.  Jonah’s closed mind still occupies the heads of many people who cannot open themselves to God’s inclusion of all people as his children.  His cold heart continues to beat in the chests of far too many who cannot – or will not – love other people, especially people who are different.

Love is foundational to the nature of God, so it must be for us as well.  And if love is foundational, that means we must demonstrate the compassion of God.  We often speak of being the hands and feet of Christ, and that is a good description of how we should live.  Compassion is, we can say, the hands and feet of love.  Compassion is the way in which we make love visible.  Love that is not visible is not really love.

Compassion must be, then, at the heart of what we do as a congregation.  We live in a time when there is a growing rise in radical individualism, a way of life that says, basically, as long as I am happy and comfortable, all is well.  As long as I have what I need, all is well.  I’ve got mine, and that’s what matters.  I’m going to enjoy my life, do what I want to do, and that’s that.  That type of life is what we find expressed in Jonah.  As long as Jonah was comfortable and happy, things were fine.  This is the lesson of Jonah and the plant.  As he went out of Nineveh, Jonah sat down in a place overlooking the city, still hopeful that God might destroy it.  When the plant grows up to provide shade for Jonah, he is happy.  The coolness of the shade provides him with contentment.  When things are going well for Jonah that is all that matters to him.  But when the plant dies, and the heat of the sun beat down upon Jonah, he complains of his misfortune.  God then scolds Jonah, pointing out his lack of compassion for Nineveh – “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”  “It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”  But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight.  And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”  As long as things were good for Jonah, that is all that mattered to him. 

We can never give in to that way of life.  We can never give in to the pull of individualism that separates us from the needs of our community.  There is far too much need for us to withdraw into the comfort of our own lives.  We must continue to live compassionate lives and build that compassion into the heart of who we are as a church.  I am very grateful for what we do as a congregation.  We take care of our members, yes, but that is not all we do.  We move beyond our own congregation, beyond our own walls and we minister to those who are in prison, we feed the hungry, we help to settle the refugees, and we perform countless other works of compassion.  This is the heart of who we are, and thank God that it is!

The tone of our culture is not exactly one of love and compassion right now.  We are at a critical juncture in history, one that requires the church to be the beacon of compassion that is so sorely needed.  Let us be the hands and feet of Christ!  Let us be the hands and feet of compassion!

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

July 1, 2018 Jonah: The Call Upon Your Life

This morning we come to the third of the four messages from the book of Jonah.  Next week ends our series of messages from this very short, but powerful book.

Today I want to talk to you about calling.  The book of Jonah covers a lot of themes, and one of them is the calling that God places upon us.

Follow along as we read Jonah 3:1-10 –

1 Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time:
“Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”
Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it.
Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”
The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.
This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:
“By the decree of the king and his nobles:  Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink.
But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence.
Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”
10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring the destruction he had threatened.

I have two things to say today, the first of which is –

1.  You Are Called by God.

Tanya has two younger brothers.  I first met her brother Mike, the older of the two, in May of 1978, a couple of months after Tanya and I began dating.  Mike had come to help Tanya move her things home for the summer.  I was in the lobby of her dorm when he came walking in.  He was, I think, a senior in high school at the time.  I can still see him walking into the lobby, with all of the 17-year-old swagger he could muster – which was quite a bit – and his long hair swinging as he walked (it was the 70s – we all had long hair!).  Mike walked right to me, stood in front of me, and without any other comment spoke his first ever words to me – So.  You’re going to be a minister, huh?  How do you know you’re called?  Did God whisper in your ear or something?  I don’t remember all of my answer, but I think it may have started with the words listen here, punk.

But it’s a legitimate question – how does one know God has called them? 

In one sense, it’s an easy question to answer how did you know you were called, because everyone is called.  I talk to a lot of people who feel they aren’t doing anything important with their lives.  They will say I’m just a _____ (fill in the blank with whatever vocation you choose).  There’s often a sense of regret in their voice, as though they believe they aren’t doing anything meaningful with their life.  But we must remember that our worth and our value are not based on our vocation, certainly it is not in the eyes of God. In America we measure ourselves too broadly by vocation, but that’s not God’s measurement.  God desires to use us – wherever we are and whatever we do – to live his love and his kingdom values.  Being called by God means far more than occupying a vocational ministry. 

The disciples, called by Jesus, are an interesting example of this.  They had no theological training.  We don’t know, in fact, if they had any kind of religious training.  They probably attended the synagogue, but we don’t know if they did so with any regularity, or at all.  I think it’s very, very significant that Jesus did not call his closest followers from the religious class.  Not one of them came from that group.  Sometimes, when I sit in minister’s meetings I understand why.  We’re kind of a weird group, we ministers.  One of the reasons we’re kind of weird is because we live in a bubble and while we experience a lot of reality because of what we do, we’re shielded from a lot of reality as well.  You are out there living in the middle of some very difficult realities, balancing life and work and so many other matters.  Remember, then, that God can use you where you are.  You don’t have to go to seminary.  You don’t have to be ordained.  You don’t have to have a special talent.  You don’t have to get up in front of a group of people and preach.  You only have to be who you are, where you are, and allow God to speak through your life. 

Sometimes, I think that when I speak some people expect certain things from ministers.  That’s just what he’s supposed to say.  Pay no attention to him.  But when you speak, or act, it carries a lot of weight.  People hear you, or watch you, and think, they are just like me, so if faith is important to them, maybe I need to take a closer look at it. 

In May, I traveled with Tanya on one of her work trips.  She travels a lot for her work and I try to accompany her once or twice a year, when it’s a welcoming location.  She invited me to travel with her to North Dakota last November, but I declined.  I hope it doesn’t make me a bad husband to decide against traveling with her in the cold!  When it came to the warm weather of May – and a trip to Myrtle Beach and Orlando – well, I was all in for that trip.  When we arrived in Myrtle Beach it turned out it was Biker’s Week there.  I was once a motorcycle rider, many years ago, but I gave it up because of safety concerns.  Even in my motorcycle days I did not look like a biker.  I have no tattoos, don’t look good in leather, and I’m not at all intimidating.  As I watched long lines of bikers ride through Myrtle Beach, I was surprised at how many of them, on the backs of their leather vests, had logos for Christian biker organizations.  I was glad to see those logos, because those bikers could reach other bikers much more effectively than I could.  We need bikers who can reach other bikers.  We need athletes who can reach other athletes.  We need teachers who can reach other teachers.  We need politicians who can reach other politicians.  And so on, and so on.

It’s really a shame that Jonah could not embrace his calling, and that it was a source of misery for him.  I think his biggest problem was he was afraid of the people to whom he was called, which leads to our second point –

2.  Do Not Be Held Captive By Fear.

Some of you will ask me after church, why do you mention fear so often?  I do so because it is such a powerful factor in our lives.  We fear many things in life.  For Jonah, he feared what he did not know, he feared what he did not understand, and he feared what was different.

I am always fearful of something.  Standing up here each week is something that is not easy for me, and often makes me feel fearful.  I fear that I am not bringing the words you need to hear or that I am not accurately interpreting the text from which I am preaching, among other things.  So what I have done, for many years, is to find something to do that helps me to overcome my fears, such as ride roller coasters.  It’s not that I enjoy the ride so much (although I do like to go fast, as anyone who has ever taken a ride in a car with me will know) as it is the sense that I have overcome a fear.  Roller coasters give me a headache, they bang me around so that my neck gets sore, and I’m dizzy and walk funny when I get off of one, but I feel like I’ve conquered a fear after I complete the ride.  One time, when we were traveling, I went to a big water park.  I love water parks; they do not, thankfully, scare me.  I was walking around the park and there was an attraction that caught my attention.  Swim with sharks a sign said.  I don’t know why that intrigued me.  Perhaps it was because I thought, this is a great way to overcome fear.  There was a park information booth across from the entrance of the attraction so I walked over to talk to the guy who was working in the booth.  There was a notebook there with pictures and descriptions of the sharks, stingrays, and other fish in the attraction, along with several waivers I would be required to sign if I got in the water with the sharks.

After reading the waivers, I had to ask the obvious question – has there been any problems?  And by problems I meant have the sharks eaten anyone?  He said, um, no.  What kind of answer is that?  Um, no.  It’s like he had to think about it for a moment.  If a shark had bitten someone you know the answer right away.  Answering in that way made me wonder if he was uncertain about answering honestly.  So I do what I often do when I’m nervous, which is to make a joke, and said, well, there’s always a first time, right?  He didn’t answer that question at all, which did not exactly fill me with confidence.  So I made the wise choice – I decided swimming with those sharks was exactly what I should do.

I put on my snorkel, goggles, and flippers and got in the water.  We were instructed to swim slowly across the tank, not to kick our feet, and not to touch any of the creatures in the tank.  Not touching a shark seemed like a given to me, but I guess some people need to be warned.  I started to swim slowly across the tank and about halfway to the other side I had relaxed enough that I decided to look around a bit.  I looked below me – the water was about 15 feet deep – and there were two sharks swimming right up towards me.  That’s when I realized I had a brass locker key dangling from my wrist, and I remembered reading once that marine biologists think one of the things that attract sharks to people swimming in the ocean is the presence of jewelry or shiny objects.  So my idea was to take it off, hand it to the swimmer next to me, and ask can you hold onto this for a minute? 

The sharks came right up under me, and then leveled off and glided just below me.  It’s hard to breath a sigh of relief in a snorkel, I’ll tell you that.  I tried to stay calm and just kept going, but when I got close to the other side there was a shallow area of water, about three feet deep, and there were two sharks right there, where I was supposed to climb out.  It was like they were waiting on me.  But, obviously I made it.  I climbed out and thought, I can’t believe I just did that.  I was so excited about having made it through the shark tank you know what I did?  I did it again!  I was excited about swimming with those sharks!  My family, surprisingly, did not share my excitement.

How can I get over my panic of creatures that want to eat me for dinner but struggle to step across the street and help my neighbor in need?  How can I perform an act of courage, such as riding a roller coaster going over 70 miles an hour and looping over and over, but be afraid to go to someone of whom I need to ask forgiveness.  How can I overcome one fear but not my fear of loving and accepting people who are different from me?

Fear is a powerful force in our lives, and it will keep us from doing what God calls us to do and will keep us from being the people God wants us to be.  Do not be afraid.  Do not be afraid.  Do not be afraid!  Jonah, unfortunately, was afraid, and he was also unwilling.  He was unwilling to answer the call of God on his life.  Perhaps it was fear that kept him from answering the call.  Whatever the reason, let us not be like Jonah!