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Voices We Need To Hear

Voices We Need to Hear

Reading: Jonah 4:1-11

[Delivered as a dialogue between Dean Barham and John York]

DEAN: John, I don’t know if this is a sign of me getting older or not (I’m approaching 40 soon), but recently I’ve noticed several friends and I talking about how different the toys are from when we were kids. I mean, it’s so much cooler now – they have Ninetendo Wii now with controllers that let you hit a golf ball on the screen by swinging the controller in your hand. Man, we just had Pong – a dot on a screen with a stick on either side! But I was reminiscing with friends about one of my favorite toys – the Big Wheel. I still remember when it was a new innovation that the Big Wheel got a “saddle bag” and a new plastic hand brake on the side. The saddlebag was a big deal because for the first time we felt like we could venture away from home. I still remember the first time we did that, how Mom packed a PB&J sandwich, wrapped it with care and put it in my new saddlebag and we ventured off for the first time on our own, past the street where we lived. Now, looking back, we only went a few blocks away, but I remember looking around the neighborhood past the familiar places we always went and I felt like we had entered a whole new world. Mom still lives in that house, so it’s funny to me now to go back and go jogging past that street that seemed so far away – because we learn as we grow up that it’s a Big Wheel world out there – there’s always another block, another street and another world beyond the familiar ones we already know.

Summer Theme: God Drives us Ever Outward: Now I share this because it captures what has been an intentional theme throughout this Summer, looking at the movement of God among his people, he is always pulling us further and further outward, all the while building up a sense of community and identity inwardly. We’ve tried to reflect that movement in the series this summer: we began with a look at God’s work in the home and family; then we explored how God is present, even in some surprising places in American culture around us, and we’re ending here with a look at the global reach of God’s grace and work. In short, God has called us to be both at home and in the world. John, any thoughts on where we’ve been?

JOHN: Dean, I love the art panels that has been up this summer, and I love the larger definition of mission that is envisioned. God has always been sending his people “out” when you think about it. He has always wanted the beings created in his image to be interested and focused outward – away from ourselves, seeing the rest of creation, being concerned for, interested in other people and circumstances. That was the creation story itself. It’s the story of all of God’s efforts to create a people for himself that will be blessed and be a blessing. It is the story of God becoming flesh and redirecting humans once again to a larger vision than one tiny nation called Israel.

Yet, the story of humanity is always the story of turning inward. Consumer faith was around long before our own consumer culture! It is hard for us humans, even when we understand the truth claims of an outward, “at home, in the universe” outlook in which we are to be the conduit of God’s redemptive love – it’s difficult for me at least to not keep returning the focus to me, myself, and I – my personal faith, my comforts, my spiritual wants and needs, to my piece of religious turf to protect. I think that’s one of the reasons at least why a short story like the book of Jonah always has such a sobering affect. It says God is always interested in gracing all of his creation, not just my tiny slice of it.

The Offense of Borderless Grace

DEAN: That’s right John, and isn’t it great how God works to recall us to this reality in such surprising ways? I mean, the Story of God in Scripture so rarely goes the way we’d expect. I love the way Fredrick Buechner puts it when he describes what we expect to hear when we come to the Bible: “what most people expect to hear read from the Bible is an edifying story, an uplifting thought, a moral lesson – something elevating, obvious, and boring.” I think he’s right to say that people who think this of the Bible simply haven’t really read it or heard it. It’s anything but a tidy, neat, simple moral story with shallow nobility in the characters. So, for those of us who have forgotten how surprisingly fresh and authentic the Bible can be, let me say one more time this month: welcome to the book of Jonah. Read Jonah 4:1-11.

John, this is anything but an Aesop’s fable kind of a story, with clear-cut characters and a neat moral at the end. In fact, the story doesn’t even resolve itself at all; we don’t know what Jonah’s ultimate response is. It’s almost as if God intentionally leaves us hanging here, wondering how we might answer the question he poses to Jonah. But before we get to the question of God, I’m struck by the complaint of Jonah. I mean, we’ve all had times of disappointment with God, but this is an interesting reason to complain isn’t it? Jonah basically says, “for heaven’s sake, God, I just knew you’d be kind; I just knew you’d be gracious; I just knew you are the kind of God who actually gives second chances to undeserving but repentant people. Now, I’ve heard people complain because they don’t like the “hellfire and brimstone God” they’ve heard about; but here Jonah is burning with anger because God is a God of grace. And that grace extends beyond the borders of anyone’s expectations. It reminds me of a quote I heard years ago that seemed strange, but further investigation proved true: when you look through the Story of God interacting with humanity, “people are far more offended by the grace of God than they are by his judgment.” It seems strange, but Jesus tells a couple of stories that affirm this – the workers in a field (Mt. 20) who have labored all day are incensed that the landowner pays those who’ve only worked an hour the same amount. “Don’t I have the right” to be generous, the landowner asks. Do you have a problem with my generosity he asks. You bet they do. Or the story we’ve unfortunately labeled the prodigal son, the foolish and wasteful boy is given not only acceptance on his return home, but a party and the older son is fuming and refuses to go in. “Won’t you come into the party,” the father asks, “we had to celebrate” didn’t we? Not on your life the older son wants to say. I recall a church one time actually debated whether it was “appropriate” to throw a baby shower for a teenage girl who got pregnant out of wedlock. “Yes, we’ll forgive her, they say; but won’t giving her a party be condoning her behavior,” they asked. I mean, God forbid that you give a sinner a party, right? God’s grace may truly be the most offensive part of his character, not his judgment. It seems that Jonah isn’t so far from where we are, is he John?

JOHN: Every time I read Jonah’s response in the early verses of this chapter, I’m stunned by the honesty of the sentiment. Jonah actually says what no one in scripture ought to say! I love the book of Job because of Job’s conversation with God when he is suffering and his friends are no comfort, and Job believes he is absolutely righteous in his belief that God had mishandled the situation. Job believes his suffering is unjust and if God would just give him a hearing, everything would get straightened out. But most of the time, even when the right words are spoken regarding God’s relationship to his people, it’s more theoretical than that. In Exodus 34 for example, you hear these words when the LORD God passes by Moses. The voice speaks and says, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7). That’s a word from God that Israel can always interpret exclusively, whether they are thinking about the mercy and forgiveness parts of the justice parts. Returning to the Lord and receiving his grace is normally what God’s people want to believe for themselves, while wanting God to punish their enemies to the third and fourth generation!

Jonah understands that God’s grace is relentless, yet even after that relentless grace has pursued him to the bottom of the sea he isn’t ready to see that same grace given to his enemies. Dean, this part of the story reminds me a lot of our conversation a few weeks ago when we were talking about the hard side of forgiveness in relation to the Gospel and Spiderman. We long for the grace and redeeming love of God to save us and make us whole, but there are the Ninevites in all of our lives and we would prefer to see them get what they deserve! The hard side – the offensive side – of God’s grace is that we wish he would be a bit more discriminating!

And it is absolutely amazing to me who “the enemy” becomes at times. I was in a conversation recently with a person for whom the “enemy” was a preacher from a church down the street from her church. It’s that “we’re the only ones that have it right and God’s going to get the rest of them, we hope” attitude. The Ninevites are ‘those people’ around the world I suppose – of other religious faiths like Islam, or often in the past, other ethnic origins. I made the comment to the students in the class that Dean and I taught last week that the last group on earth conservative Christians are allowed to despise is homosexuals. We can allow grace to cover everyone else that carries with them sin related to our sexuality but not ‘those people.’ Yet we know with Jonah that God is a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in love, calling his children to extend that grace and love to others as he has extended it to us.

DEAN: That’s the challenge here isn’t it? I mean, Jonah had every reason not to care about this city in the story – it’s geographically on the other side of the world, the people are morally and spiritually repulsive, and frankly the way they are living is dangerous, even deadly, to themselves and others. And you point out some great examples of Nineveh-like situations today. Another I’d throw into the mix is the poor in our cities. I can’t tell you how often I and others I know have declined to help the impoverished because we insist that they deserve what they are getting. They have made foolish choices and, after all, we live in America and they can get out if they really want to. What’s difficult about this is that’s largely true, but it was true for Nineveh too. And, the part I don’t want to admit, it has been true for myself spiritually as well. I still remember a day in my college years when I really messed up – one of those things where you feel the conviction as soon as you blow it and I immediately went over to a friend’s house who was a part of our spiritual family there. I told him about my failure, fully expecting to experience our friendship lost or changed irreparably. What I got instead was grace: no, not the “it’s OK, it doesn’t matter thing,” he acknowledged that I messed up and I could see the disappointment on his face. But I also remember that he didn’t lecture me or dismiss me and he let me know in no uncertain terms that I didn’t lose his spiritual friendship because I’d failed to live up to my commitment to the God we were trying to follow. You see, I have received God’s grace when I didn’t deserve it, but how quickly our prayers can change, can’t they? Just like Jonah, we can go from being rescued by God’s unconditional embrace in one moment and then wonder how he can be so indiscriminately kind to someone else in another. Jonah prays, celebrating how God received him in his distress in chapter 2, only to condemn God doing the same for this foreign city in chapter 4. How quickly our prayers can change.

The Conversation that Reveals Hearts

But maybe that’s the hope – the prayer itself. Maybe there’s something to sticking with the conversation with the Divine, because God changes and reveals things in the midst of that conversation. You see, this isn’t the last prayer in the book – in fact, the book ends with an extended conversation between Jonah and God (symmetry here: one commentator notes that there are 39 Hebrew words uttered by Jonah, followed by 39 uttered by God). But the problem is, there are voices than Jonah just isn’t hearing. So God chooses to speak in some creative ways. John, why don’t you take us through what you’ve noticed about how God chooses to communicate to Jonah here?

JOHN: For the first time, as we began talking about preaching from Jonah, I realized the importance God gives to the rest of Creation in this story. It’s as though we’re revisiting the opening chapter of Genesis and God once more is revealing himself through every part of creation – land and sea, light and darkness, the wind, plants and animals, and yes, humans created in his image. I’m reminded of the scene in Bruce Almighty, early in the movie when Bruce’s life has fallen apart. He’s driving down the road saying “God, show me a sign, any sign!” And right in front of him, of course, is a truck loaded with signs that say, “Stop.” “Dead End.” But he can’t see the signs in front of him. All nature doesn’t just sing in this story, it screams in this story, trying to get Jonah’s attention – trying to get our attention. We’re supposed to wonder at more than what kind of fish this is. We’re supposed to see God in every moment and movement of creation – land and sea, light and dark, sunshine and storm, fish in the sea, tree and plant on land.

I’m not saying that every “natural disaster” we hear about these days should make us think the world is coming to an end. Nor even that God uses hurricanes and floods to punish people on this planet or get them to repent. But shouldn’t we pay closer attention to our own human response to such events? The Tsunami was a terrible catastrophe a few years ago – but lots of people became more interested in the plight of children and orphans and poverty in other parts of the world in its aftermath. Hurricanes bring terrible consequences beyond the loss of life. But they also bring out the best of humanity in our efforts to relieve that suffering. We break through all kinds of social barriers that otherwise exist. Every time I think about Creation speaking and changing lives I think about so many of you in this church who became the hands and feet and presence of Jesus after Katrina, and some like Brooks and Ashley Randolph whose missional lives were completely changed by their experiences after Katrina. God still speaks through all the voices of Creation.

DEAN: Isn’t God remarkable in the way he speaks to his people: here and throughout the book, he uses all of creation to get Jonah to care about all of creation. Earlier in the book it says that God “appointed” a great fish to swallow Jonah. And here God “appoints” a gourd, a worm and an east wind – all dimensions of his creation to get through to Jonah’s heart. And in this creative conversation, hearts are revealed – Jonah’s and God’s. The gourd itself becomes symbolic: it reveals Jonah’s self-centered heart. He cares more about his own comfort (with the plant, and with the fate of his enemies in the city) than he does about people in God’s world. But more importantly, it reveals God’s heart too. I like where he says Jonah is concerned about the vine, even though he didn’t “tend it or make it grow”; which implies that God has (or desires to) do that very thing for Nineveh. Throughout the Old Testament, God speaks of his people in farming imagery: they are (like in Isaiah 5) like a vineyard that he plants and nurtures. But here we learn that that’s not the only vineyard to him, all of the world’s cities are. So, Nineveh isn’t just symbolic, there’s something literal here too: God cares about cities, John, isn’t that right?

JOHN: Pick a city; pick a people that God isn’t interested in, whether it is Baghdad or the millions and billions in China, or the large cities of Africa, or Havana or Caracas, Venezuela – home of one of our newer political enemies. God loves the people of Central America and Ghana and New Guinea just as he loves the people of Calcutta and Bombay and Kiev and New Orleans and San Francisco and Miami and Detroit. There is no place on this planet that God does not long to announce his grace and steadfast love.

DEAN: And before we finish, there’s a city that can be easy to forget when we talk about “mission,” it’s this one right here – Nashville, TN. You see, this book helps remind us that God loves this city, every part of it. The book of Jonah doesn’t end with a nice neat ending, it ends with a question: will the people of God love this city and the cities of our world like our God does? I must admit, my reading of this text has been colored by a kind of modern version of the parable of the gourd played out in our headlines recently. For a few weeks now, I have read headline after headline that said things like: “What if Harry Dies?” (picture of Harry Potter book). There has been nothing short of a frenzy and obsession with the fate of the hero of this story. Oh don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a good book and even getting caught up in it. Just to be fair, if I wanted to pick on people like me, I’d focus on fantasy football coming up or the characters that have died on my favorite TV show 24. All of us have our fanaticisms, and like the gourd they are fine – part of God’s creation to be enjoyed. But real question that nags me is, do we care more about the destiny of a fictional character than we do about the lives of people in these great cities. . . (slowly show the last three slides of the cities, pause for about 5 seconds or so on each one).

Delivered at Woodmont Hills July 29, 2007.

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