Sunday, January 25, 2009

Mercy, Mercy, Mercy

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Jonah 3:1-5, 10
at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on January 25, 2009

Just when we think we have everything figured out, every little thing in its place, along comes Jonah. And its not so much Jonah who destroys our neatly constructed worldview as it the God whom Jonah reveals. Our God is a disruptive God who shows mercy where we would show none. God's mercy includes all of creation, even cows, cats and dogs. Let's dive into Jonah's story and discover this merciful and playful God whom Jonah reveals. As we do, I will draw from Michael William's retelling of Jonah's story in The Storyteller's Companion to the Bible.

God spoke to Jonah, son of Amittai, saying, "Go to Ninevah, that huge city and tell them that I am disgusted by their behavior." Now, this was a very odd command since the Ninevites were the enemy of the rest of the world including Israel. This would be similar to God ordering you or me to travel to Tehran, Iran, to tell them to repent. God ordered Jonah outside his comfort zone, in order to save a nation that all the world despised.

So Jonah did the only sensible thing. He headed in the opposite direction from Ninevah. He went down to the seacoast at Joppa, down to the shoreline, down into the dark hold of a ship, and finally down into the unconsciousness of sleep. This is clearly a downward slide for Jonah. He was headed for Tarshis, which was the other end of the world in his day. But his plans were about to be changed. 
God caused a storm to break loose on the Mediterranean and, in terror, the sailors began to do something very uncharacteristic for them: they started to pray to their various gods. Sailors are not noted for their piety. For example, you never hear anyone use the phrase, "To pray like a sailor." But I suppose there are no atheists in storms at sea just as there are none in foxholes. The captain finally came upon Jonah snoring through the storm and woke him, "Get up and pray to your God. Perhaps we can all be saved yet."

As in any crisis, someone had to be blamed. The sailors cast lots and the lot fell to Jonah. He confessed he was trying to escape his God, the same one who had created heaven and earth, and the only remedy was to throw him overboard. The sailors rowed with all their might attempting to return the ship to shore, but to no avail. They finally threw Jonah overboard asking forgiveness for their action. As soon as he hit the water it became calm and the wind and the rain subsided. Seeing this dramatic turn of events, the ship's crew got religion and worshiped God. This is only the first of Jonah's great successes as a prophet and an evangelist.

While the sailors were getting religion, Jonah was getting swallowed by a huge fish. Jonah spent three days in the fish's stomach, which was a dark, frightening, and smelly place. Jonah put together a prayer out of all the lines from prayers and psalms he could remember. Finally, God's water taxi had arrived at its destination and vomited Jonah upon the shore.

Once again, God told Jonah to go to Ninevah and what to tell the people there. This time Jonah headed straight for Nineveh. After walking one full day within the city, Jonah preached the shortest sermon on record. (Which may be the reason it was so effective!) He said, "In forty days Nineveh will be destroyed." Notice that he left the citizens no way out of their predicament.

Well, the most amazing thing happened. The entire city repented, from the king down to the poorest commoner. They all fasted and put on sackcloth and ashes to show how truly sorry they were for their behavior. Everyone living in the city repented in this fashion, even the dogs, cats, and cattle. Now the Bible doesn't say this but the rabbis have said the repentance of the Ninevites was so profound that people who found that even one brick had been taken unjustly would tear down the entire structure  to return that brick to its rightful owner. If someone found a treasure on a piece of property they had purchased from a neighbor they would attempt to return it to the person from whom they had bought the land. If neither of these could claim it, they both wold seek among previous owners until the person to whom the treasure belonged, or his descendants, could be found. (Ginzberg IV, p. 251) After they repented, God showed mercy from the kittens to the cows to the people on Ninevah. Mercy. Mercy. Mercy.

All this repenting really irked Jonah. Since he had gone to all the effort to proclaim destruction, he wanted to see the fireworks--an earthquake or raging fire that would consume his enemies as the fish had taken him in. "This is the very reason I tried to escape you in the first place," Jonah whined. Then the most successful prophet ever to utter a warning accused God, "I should have known you would pull something like this. After all, it's just like you--compassionate, slow to anger, merciful, always ready to forgive and reprieve people from the punishment they deserve. Just kill me right here on the spot. I'd be better off dead than alive anyway."

And God answered Jonah with this question: "What reason do you have to be so peeved?"

Jonah didn't answer, but went out to a place east of the city to sulk. Then God caused a castor-oil plant to spring up and shade the pouting prophet. (God's little joke, after all, Jonah needed to loosen up inside.) The next morning, however, God sent a worm to cut the plant down, and then sent the scorching sun and a hot wind from the east to heat up the situation. Once again Jonah proclaimed, "I would be better off dead than alive."

To which God replied with the same question that Jonah had refused to answer before, "What reason do you have to be so angry?"

"Every reason," Jonah snapped.

"You are more concerned about a plant than you are about my people. But you had nothing to do with its springing up or its being cut down. It just grew one day and died the next. Shouldn't I have compassion on this great city with one hundred twenty thousand people who do not even know their right hand from their left as well as with the cattle which are too numerous to count? Who does not know their right hand from their left? Small children and people of any age who have the minds of small children. So it seems from the story of Jonah and Ninevah that God will save an entire city for the sake of its children and animals. (Michael E. Williams, The Storyteller's Companion to the Bible, Volume Seven, The Prophets II, 175-177) Now isn't just like God to show mercy. Mercy. Mercy. Mercy.

God's mercy disrupted Jonah's world and left it in shambles. Jonah realized that God was more inclined toward compassion for the innocent than judgment on the guilty. God challenged Jonah's world because God was more devoted to saving the cows, cats and dogs than to destroying the kings, politicians and priests. From this story we learn that God has a different set of priorities than we do. God exercises a preferential option for the young and innocent including animals and pets. God cares about them too and God can be swayed by their cries for help.

The story of Jonah and the Ninevites takes us out of our comfort zone. We thought we knew how God acts. God is strong. God is decisive. Yet Jonah's story shows us a different side of God. We read in Jonah 3 verse 10: "When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it." God changed his mind. We Presbyterians are not very comfortable with the thought of a God who changes his mind. We worship a God who is, as the hymn says, "Immortal, invisible, God only wise." But Jonah's Go because of his love for small children and animals. 

Let us never say that the God of the Old Testament is only a God of war and judgement. For here, in Jonah, in the Old Testament, we see a God of mercy. Here is a God who helps little children and dogs. Here is a God who helps those who can't help themselves.

I wonder how our personal priorities would change if we imitated this God who helps those who can't help themselves. I wonder if we would find ourselves committing more acts of random kindness. I wonder if we would discover a new found compassion for the children and helpless in our society. This is the direction our Outreach Ministry team will lead us this year in a focus on the children.
God's ways are not our ways. God's thoughts are not our thoughts. It was a hard lesson for Jonah. And it is a hard lesson for us. We learn from the story of Jonah that God will save an entire city for the sake of its children and animals. The God of the Old Testament shows kindness and compassion. Our God expects no less of us. Mercy. Mercy. Mercy.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Come and See

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from John 1:43-51
on Jan 18, 2009 at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston


"Come, follow me," is a rather odd way to introduce yourself to a someone but in the Gospel According to John that is how Jesus introduced himself to Philip. Of course there was probably more to the conversation than that. Perhaps it went something like this.

Jesus says: "Hey, Philip. My name is Jesus. I'm from Galilee. Where are you from?"

Philip replies: "Bethsaida."

Jesus continues: "Oh, so do you know Andrew and Peter? They live in Bethsaida."

Philip smiles and says: "Oh yeah, I know Andrew and Peter. Bethsaida is small town. Everyone knows everyone there."

Jesus responds: "Well, I grew up in a small town, too."

Philip says: "Really? Where did you grow up?"

Jesus smirks and says: "I grew up in Nazareth."

Philip laughs and says: "Wow. That is a small town. But it seems like I have heard about a family in Nazareth. Israelite royalty. If you can imagine those two words going together. Israelite. Royalty. Hard to imagine in these days when Rome rules our world."

Jesus replies: "Yes, I am familiar with the royal family of Israel. In fact, you are speaking about my family. My father's family traces its lineage back through King David to Father Abraham."

Philip smiles and says: "Well. Pleased to meet you, Jesus. It is my privilege to meet someone from the royal family of King David ... Wait. Wait a minute. I know who you are. I've heard talk about you around here. A young man from the royal family who is, according to some, the very Messiah we have been waiting for all these years. Are you that one? Are you the Messiah."

Jesus smiles in return and responds: "It is as you say. Let's sit down and refresh ourselves with some water and look at the Hebrew scriptures. I'll use our holy texts to show you my true identity but I do have one condition for this revelation."

Philip says: "Anything you want."

Jesus looks him straight in the eyes and says: "Come follow me."

We don't know every word that was exchanged between Jesus and Philip but we do know the result of their conversation. Philip went and found Nathanael and told him, "We've found the One Moses wrote of in the Law, the One preached by the prophets. It's Jesus, Joseph's son, the one from Nazareth!" 

Philip tells Nathanael he has made the greatest discovery in the long history of the Jewish people. He has met the Messiah in the flesh who is alive and walking the earth. He describes their amazing conversation: "He explained the scripture to me. You've got to meet him, Nathanael."

Nathanael says, "Huh. Sounds interesting. So where's he from?"

Philip: "Nazareth."

Nathanael replies: "You've got to be kidding." Come on, Philip, give me a break. That small town? Nazareth?

What do we know about Nazareth? We know it was the place from which Jesus' mother came and the place where Jesus grew up. According to Harper's Bible Dictionary Nazareth was an insignificant agricultural village near a major trade route to Egypt. Population: Almost 2000 people. Nothing worth mentioning ever happened there. Nazareth is not even mentioned in the Old Testament. No wonder Nathanael says: "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" 

I must confess I took great comfort from this text when I was growing up in an obscure small town in Mississippi. Like Nazareth, Morton, Mississippi never graced the pages of the Old Testament. Morton was and still is a chicken town. There is a big chicken rendering plant right in the middle of downtown. And boy does it ever smell when it gets to burning. The only famous person to ever come out of Morton was Deuce McAllister, the running back for the New Orleans Saints, and when I was growing up there Deuce hadn't yet been born. Yes, it did my young heart good to know that, like me, Jesus grew up in an obscure small town.
But Philip didn't hold that against Jesus. Philip told Nathanael, "Come and see for yourself."

"Come and see," Philip told Nathanael. "Come and see."

Last weekend, during the All Ministry Team day, we considered how to share hospitality in this congregation. Hospitality begins with an invitation: "Come and see." Extend that invitation to your unchurched friends. To invite someone to church, you don't have to have a long theological discussion, you don't have to know the Bible better than they or be more holy than they are. All you have to do is extend the invitation: "Come and see." You don't even have to worry about how they respond to your invitation. Their response to the invitation is between them and God. All we are responsible for is extending the invitation: "Come and see."

So Nathanael did. Nathanael came to see Jesus. When Jesus saw Nathanael coming he greets him. Notice how Jesus takes the initiative in calling his disciples. He doesn't wait for Nathanael to introduce himself. Jesus greets Nathanael when he seeing him coming. And he says something good about him. Here's the first thing he says: "There's a real Israelite, not a false bone in his body." We all like to hear people say good things about us. Especially when what they say is true and sincere. Nathanael had scoffed at Jesus' home town. "Nazareth? You've got to be kidding me." Now Nathanael scoffs at Jesus' warm greeting. Nathanael says, "Where did you get the idea that I am a real Israelite without a false bone in my body? You don't know me." 

How often have we thought about ourselves. Someone wants to enter into a deeper relationship with us but we are reluctant to let down our guard. We recoil, thinking, "You don't know me." It is a way of saying I am not ready to be vulnerable to you. I do not trust you enough to let you see who I really am. Another way we extend hospitality to one another is by being vulnerable enough to let other people know who we really are without the masks and facades we normally wear for self protection.

Jesus extends hospitality to Nathaniel. Jesus claims he already knows Nathanael even though they haven't met before. Jesus says, "One day, long before Philip called you here, I saw you under the fig tree." What was Nathanael doing under the fig tree when Jesus saw him? Was Nathanael speaking to someone about his dissatisfaction with life? How he wanted to change things but didn't have the strength? Or had Nathanael been talking to God under the fig tree? Had Nathanael been pleading with God to show him the way forward in his life? Had Nathanael been pleading with God to send a leader to guide his people to victory over the Roman army and culture that had a stranglehold on the people of Israel? We don't know what Nathanael had been doing under the fig tree when Jesus him but it must have been something important for Nathanael to respond as he did.

Nathanael exclaimed, "Rabbi! You are the Son of God, the King of Israel!" This confession of faith is remarkable. Note the progression in the three designations of Jesus. Rabbi! Means teacher. Religious instructor. It's like calling a minister, "Pastor." A way of acknowledging what someone does and their role in society. "Rabbi! You are the Son of God." Now that is over the top. Son of God! We may call many people "Pastor" but we never have called someone "Son of God" while looking into their eyes. Son of God! Nathanael has had an epiphany about the identity of Jesus. "Son of God! The King of Israel." The King of Israel. Now that brings it right down home for Nathanael and Jesus. These two Jews. Both are aware of their people's need for a savior. Both know that Jesus is from the royal family. He is qualified to be the King of Israel. He hails from the royal line of King David. The King of Israel.

And in that moment Nathanael signs on to follow Jesus all the way down the line. It will be a rocky road. There will be confrontations with other religious leaders. It will mean living on the road. Never sure where you'll be sleeping tonight. It will mean leaving behind his business, family and livelihood. It will mean following Jesus until you one day see him hanging dead on a cross with a sign above his head written in three different languages so everyone can get the message: "The King of Israel."

Jesus said to Nathanael, "You've become a believer simply because I say I saw you one day sitting under the fig tree? You haven't seen anything yet! Before this is over you're going to see heaven open and God's angels descending to the Son of Man and ascending again." Jesus has called Nathanael a true Israelite. Now he refers to the story of the original Israelite, a man named Jacob, whose name God changed from Jacob to Israel. The father of their nation. Jacob had a dream one night. He saw a ladder in the sky. Jacob's ladder. Angels were ascending into heaven and descending back down to earth. Jesus refers to that story about the beginning of the nation of Israel because Nathanael has just signed on to follow the King of Israel.

All of this Nathanael experienced before he even spent 15 minutes with Jesus. His other adventures with Jesus are too many to name this morning. In fact, we aren't really sure whom Nathanael is. He is never listed in the group of 12 disciples. Some think he is known to the disciples as Bartholomew. Who is Nathanael? He is you. He is me. He is all disciples of Jesus Christ. All of us who were skeptical in the beginning. All of us who were not ready to take the risk of following Jesus. All of us who changed our minds because someone invited us to come and see.

Come and see. That is what Philip said to Nathanael. That is the challenge he laid down. That is the opportunity he provided. Come and see Jesus. Come and see Jesus. Invite someone to come and see. Invite someone to come and see Jesus at this church. Pick them up. Drive them here. Come and see. We are only required to issue the invitation. We are not responsible for the response. Come and see. That is all that Jesus needed from Philip. Just to invite Nathanael. Come and see. Jesus took care of the rest. He always will.