Thursday, January 26, 2006

Ecumenism an unqualified success

Well...perhaps that is saying too much. But I had the distinct honor of preaching at a service sponsored by the Exton-Lionville Ministerium last night. It's always an honor for a Baptist to be offered a pulpit and I hope the words were meaningful. The text was from Matthew 18:18-22: "Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Amen, I tell you, if two of you on earth are agreed on anything and ask my Father, he will grant it. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them. Then Peter said, 'Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive that person? As many as seven times?' Jesus said to him, 'I say to you, not seven times, but seventy times seven (or seventy-seven).'" (A loose paraphrase of the text)

The sermon is below--feel free to chime in with thoughts!

Let me begin my time this evening by saying what an honor it is to be standing here today. It is a true honor to be part of the Exton-Lionville Ministerium, a privilege to be part of such a good group of good people who are working for the Kingdom of God. It is an amazing feeling also to be standing in this beautiful pulpit in this lovely sanctuary, and I do pray that many will grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ in this sanctuary.

I want to particularly thank my colleagues for inviting me to preach today. In the Baptist tradition, preaching is paramount; it is the cornerstone of the worship service; it doesn’t feel like worship if someone has not delivered a sermon. And so it is an honor for me to share this part of
our tradition with you today.

I will tell you up front that preaching in the Baptist tradition is usually longer than in many other churches. I go to school part-time at Drew University in New Jersey and was sitting between my Catholic friend and another Baptist student. And the Catholic said to me, and you Baptists will understand why this is funny, "The priest just would not shut up this week. He spoke for, like, seven minutes." And the Baptist student and I just laughed and laughed; I thought, "Wow, in most Baptist churches I’ve been a part of, seven minutes, you’re still in your introduction!" Now my sermons are actually fairly short for a Baptist, between twenty and twenty-five minutes usually, but it may take a little getting used to for those from other traditions.

When I began to look at this evening’s text to prepare my sermon, I was taken aback by the heading in my Bible for this passage. It says, "Reproving Another Who Sins." That’s what this passage is about, reproving, or rebuking, another who sins. And I thought, "Wow...that’s kind of a heavy theme for an ecumenical prayer service." I mean, let’s get together, let’s have cookies, let’s thank God for Jesus who binds us all together–but let’s not get into such a thorny, difficult issue, like reproving each other when we sin. I began to think, "Why couldn’t I have last year’s text? That was 1 Cor 3:23: ‘...all things belong to you–for you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God.’ That was nice and neat and tidy and orderly and uplifting–

But this business about reproving others sounds awfully confrontational, and ill-suited for an ecumenical service; it sounds a bit like the guest you have in your home that keeps on offending people without knowing it, who makes all the wrong religious and political jokes and doesn’t seem to know the carnage he is wreaking. And yet, here it is, reproving others, smack dab between the parable about the lost sheep and a teaching about being merciful to each other.

It seems to me that when Jesus talks about reproving each other, he puts an awful lot of power into human hands. He says to them, "Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Whatever you enforce on earth will be enforced in heaven; and whatever you tolerate on earth will be tolerated in heaven. The church has the divine authority and privilege of wrestling with issues of right and wrong, with issues of what constitutes injustice; as terrifying as this is, it is also empowering: we are given the right to speak with God’s authority. The message here is clear: the united voice of the church matters. We matter. What we say matters.

But it is more than just the fact that our voice matters. Our ears matter. It is not only what we say, but how we listen to each other, that matters. Since we, as Christians, as a church, are given such a weighty authority, anyone who would choose to bear it alone is a fool. Since God has entrusted us with such power, only those bent on self-destruction would try to carry that power alone. There are many issues today which face the churches where we disagree. Put in the language of this passage, there are things I believe should be bound that others here may believe should be loosed. There are things I believe should be loosed that others here may believe should be bound. The fact that God has entrusted us with such authority ought to fill us with an urgent desire to listen to each other even as we speak boldly about how we perceive God’s will.

Perhaps this is the right text for an ecumenical gathering after all. This text, after all, is a text about our right and our obligation to listen to each other. For as awkward as the ecumenical dance is, for all the stepping on each other’s feet that we might do when we’re together, it is a beautiful and lovely dance. Why? Because it is a dance that honors the spirit of this passage. Jesus goes on to say, "Truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven." And again, the ecumenical dance, though awkward, is beautiful because it is a dance where both partners say, "What can we agree on, so together we can go and ask it of God?" It is a dance that is beautiful because of what Jesus says, "Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." So it is a dance that is not made beautiful by the grace of the dancers, but it is made beautiful by the presence of God. Though many of us have two left feet, this dance together is made beautiful because the Spirit of God broods over it whenever we actually dance together. We have been given a tremendous right and obligation to listen to each other, that the ecumenical dance might go on in all its awkward, halting beauty.

We both know the alternative, and it’s tempting. If it is not an authentic dance between blushing, nervous partners, it will be a technically beautiful dance, where everyone makes the right steps and no one ever gets stepped on, but it will not have a soul. The music will be pitch-perfect, the footwork astonishing, and the performances awesome, but it will not have a soul. It will be like professional ballroom dancing, where when the two are dancing and they look for all the world like they’re husband and wife; but when the music stops, the two go their separate ways and it’s painfully obvious they never loved each other at all; indeed, they never even knew each other.

The whole point of this first part of the passage seems to be that God has given us a tremendous amount of power in this human life: power to bind and power to loose. God places tremendous authority in human hands, power to agree, power to disagree. In all, it seems that God has put the pace of the ecumenical dance in our hands. Will ours become an ecumenism of trying to find the lowest common denominator, of papering on a wide grin and sending out our best dancers to dance a round or two before we all go home and say, "Whew! I’m glad that’s over!?" Or will we live as ecumenical people in the world, in a way that strives to genuinely encounter each other, to listen, to reflect, to speak boldly, unafraid, believing deeply in each other? Can we live with the occasional misstep, knowing that our dance partners will forgive our faux pas?

What I’m really asking is will our pursuit of Christian unity allow us to see each other honestly and love each other despite what we might dislike in another Christian? Will we be able to love each other, not only when we are happy with each other, but when our rough edges begin to show? We will inevitably disagree with each other and find much that separates us, but will that prevent us from listening to each other? Let it never be–because finding the truth and being where God is is just that important.

Of course, all of this requires a great deal of spiritual maturity. To be able to encounter what you consider to be the ugly side of another person and still love them means that you have come to grips with the ugliness in your own spirit. To be able to listen to someone who is different without being threatened, without reacting out of fear, means that you must be rooted in Christ in a deep way, aware of your failings and your gifts; this awareness only comes through prayer, through corporate worship, service to others and through the Word of God written, preached and embodied in Christ.

If the ecumenical project is to have any meaning, it will not be because professional theologians gather in a room and come up with a statement that few will read. No, if the ecumenical project is to mean anything, it will not be something that happens in ivory towers and is handed down to the rest of us. It will happen, here, during the service, as we sing each others’ songs even when they are unfamiliar, when we sit and stand at different times then we’re used to, when we listen to those crazy Baptists who seem to preach forever! It will happen after the service, when we have homemade cookies, when we eat and drink and talk and learn about each other and build relationships. If the ecumenical project is to mean anything to a hurting and dying world, it will because you and I took tonight and the rest of our lives to know each other better so that we become better stewards of the tremendous authority Jesus has given us, the authority to bind and to loose, the authority to agree and disagree, the authority to be stewards both of Christ’s love and Christ’s truth in a world desperately in need of both.

It seems that Peter, too, was concerned with the amount of power given to the church. Peter, who would lead the church after the coming of the Spirit, seemed to know even then that that kind of power would be hard to steward. Power ordinarily corrupts, after all. People would get hurt. Factions would arise. In his mind’s eye, Peter seems to foresee the trouble that may come when this power is in the hands of people, and so he says, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?"
When we receive this power to bind and to loose, when the Spirit comes from heaven to help us incarnate your love, O Lord, how often should we forgive those who hurt us? Should I open my heart to pain seven times before I finally say, "Enough is enough?" We all know how hard it is to make ourselves vulnerable to another person; and it’s especially hard to make ourselves vulnerable to someone who has hurt us in the past. But Peter is willing to do that not once, not twice, but seven times. For this Peter is to be commended.

And yet Jesus asks more; he says, not only the seven times, but seventy times seven. Not only the amount you think you can forgive, not only the times you see as the limit of your spiritual ability, but still more, more, seventy times as much as you think you can. Truly, it will take the power of the Holy Spirit to forgive that often.

Ecumenical relationships, like any relationships, hurt from time to time. Those of you who are married can remember the first year of marriage with your spouse. It’s not easy, is it? In premarital counseling, I often mention to couples how tough that first year is. I am a firm believer that God gives marriages the tools to succeed; certainly that is the case with Jill and I. My wife Jill is a mathematician and a good one, and she appreciates order in her life and in our home. I am not so orderly; I am spontaneous and free and sometimes can feel stifled with too much order. Six and a half years into our marriage, we are to the point where each of us are using those tools for the good of our marriage, and for the good of each other. At times, Jill brings much needed order out of chaos. At times, I bring something new that breaks up a rigid routine. Each is a powerful tool that God is using to change and to grow us through the good gift of marriage. I would not be the same person without her, and she would not be the same without me. Marriage is part of the way in which God is making us into a new creation.

But those tools God gives us are sharp. And in the first year of marriage, when it is not exactly what you expected, when you are still clumsy at using those tools, as often as not, you hurt each other with the same tools that God gives you for building. The same traits that are now gifts to our marriage, we used to use against each other. Not intentionally or maliciously, mind you; but we used to see them as tools to get our own way, and now we see them as tools to build something together, from which together we can reach out in love to the world.

It is the same for those of us here tonight, in our life together. The tools that have been given to us to build up the church and reach out in love to all the world are effective–but they are sharp. And from time to time, if we have any authentic relationship, we will hurt each other. In fact, the only way the process won’t hurt is if we don’t really get to know each other. Then nothing hurts–but nor is anything built. But if we are together to build a safe place to reach out to the world in love, we occasionally will hurt each other.

In this we must remember the words of Christ: "Seventy times seven." It is on the foundation of forgiveness that a true home can be built–in marriage or in the churches. It is forgiveness borne out of the love that rejoices in the truth and bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, a love that never fails. When we have a foundation of forgiveness, then we can talk about things that used to paralyze us. A foundation of forgiveness will allow us to build something resembling a home together, though it is nothing like the home that awaits us, one built not with human hands. A foundation of forgiveness allows us to walk in the light of Christ and lay down our arms and become completely vulnerable with each other.

It is when we learn to forgive that the dance can truly begin; and a world without music can watch the halting beauty of the dancers, and maybe–just maybe–begin to dance with us. May it be so.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


I'm sitting in my office, just browsing through the journal First Things--just got here in the mail and I love to read it. Will have more time for reading later, but read a stunning article I wanted to share with you by Emily Stimpson, a writer from Ohio.

The article is called "Requiem for a Parish," and it has to do with the imminent closing of St. Stanislas Catholic Church in Ohio. St. Stanislas used to be a thriving parish serving the substantial Polish community in town and now is attended by only a couple dozen older folks on any Sunday morning. The story is the same everywhere: children grew up, moved away to other parishes and greener pastures elsewhere, and now a few parents keep it together.

At St. Stanislas, some young folks from the nearby Catholic university come on a Sunday morning. They could be at the chapel at school, with its lively blend of contemporary and ancient elements. But they choose to come to St. Stanislas, because as Stimpson so elegantly says it:

"Because they know what was is passing away. And they want to hold on to it for just a little bit longer. Not because they reject the new. Rather, they hold on because, while they still can, they want to understand what was best and most beautiful in the last age--the age where for a few glorious decades churches like St. Stanislas embodied the Catholic faith in America.

They know the practice of the faith was no more perfect then than it is now...But, for all those problems, it was a beautiful chapter in the life of the Church, filled with simple faith, devotion, and sacrifice. There were many babies and many nuns, many people willing to give for the Christ they adored. There were men and women who saw in their little humble parish a glimpse of heaven...It was a beautiful dream while it lasted, and in the hearts of those who learned from the heart of the dream--the sacrifice of the faithful and the poetry of a parish--will linger still."

May this word make us aware, especially we Baptists who toss history aside so casually. May it remind us that there is something beautiful and honorable about the way the faith once delivered has been lived out throughout the last two thousand years. And may we remember that there are those coming after us, and may they find in us those who lived a "beautiful dream" of our own.

Worship on Sunday, January 29

HI all--a bit about this coming Sunday's service. It's the third of a series of four sermons on Jonah, a guy who looks all too much like most of us: unable to appreciate God's gifts, except when he finds himself in a pickle (or a whale's belly, in his case). The text is Jonah 3:1 - 4:5, when Jonah speaks, Nineveh repents, and Jonah broods.

Sunday’s service is to focus us in on God’s goodness and our need to change our hearts so we can see how truly good God is. Sometimes, sin clouds our understanding; the things that seem right are actually wrong, and the things that seem wrong are actually right. So sometimes we the fact we are human and fallen makes us not see how good God truly is.

Such certainly was the case with Jonah, the subject of the morning’s text. And so the other things we will do in worship Sunday will focus us in on these themes—God’s goodness and our desire to change so we can see how good God truly is. Our call to worship is based on Hebrews 3: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” Right from the beginning, we want to be open to what God is saying to us. Our hearts thus opened, we will invite the Triune God into our presence through the hymn “Come, Thou Almighty King;” each of the first three verses focus on one aspect of the God we invite: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our prayer again focuses on God shaping us into a fit vessel for His presence and work in the world.

Following the children’s sermon and the anthem, we will read Psalm 100, again about God’s goodness; and then as our prayer together, I will offer a solo: “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian.” After the offering and sharing of God’s peace, we’ll sing “Change My Heart, O God.” Following this, we’ll share the word of God together and close by singing “Like A River Glorious,” a final reminder of God’s goodness and our hope to “trust him fully” by following in His ways.

Hope many will join us--invite a friend and see you then!

Monday, January 23, 2006

January 22 sermon

Hi folks--here is the sermon from this past Sunday. Feel free to comment here or e-mail me if yo'd like to be part of an e-mail discussion group.

"But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days or three nights."

You know, one of the main questions that most modern people have about the book of Jonah is, "Is it real?" Did this actually happen? Was there really a person named Jonah who was disobedient in this way and was he really in the belly of a whale for three days before the fish
threw him up on the beach? Is this real?

The other option for interpreting the book of Jonah is as a kind of parable. The parables were, of course, stories that Jesus told to illustrate an important point about the Kingdom of God. When Jesus tells the parable of the prodigal son, we don’t really care that the father and the younger son and the older son never physically existed; Jesus invents characters and invents a story that is designed to teach us a lesson. And so Jonah may also be a sort of parable, a story invented by an author who was inspired by God’s Spirit to write this story that teaches us important truths and reveals a lot about the human condition.

I’m not exactly sure whether the story of Jonah is meant to be historical or not, whether we are supposed to think that Jonah really existed and had all of this happen to him. There are good arguments on both sides. Those who say it is a sort of parable say that the book looks different than the other prophets. For instance, the book of Jonah is very different than the book of Micah which comes after it. Most people believe Micah was a real prophet, and the book of Micah is very different from Jonah. The book of Micah is taken up with the prophet’s sayings and writings, and there isn’t much of a story to it. It’s pretty much: "The word of the Lord came to Micah, and this is what he said." And that’s very typical of the prophets. But the book of Jonah is very different. There’s not much focus at all on what Jonah preached or wrote, but there is a lot of emphasis on his story. So some people believe it’s more likely that this story was written by a different person and intended to be fictional.

Some people, though, believe that the story is supposed to be true. The book of 2 Kings does refer to Jonah, son of Amittai, so we know that Jonah, son of Amittai, is a real person. These people say, "Hey, if the author was just making up a story, why would he attach a real person’s name to it? If the author was just making up a story, the author probably would make up a name for the lead character rather than pretending it happened to an actual person." That would be like someone writing the fairy tale Cinderella and calling it "Dorothy Gardner." And this too is a good point.

In all, I think it’s impossible to know for sure whether this is history or parable. I tend to believe that it’s historical, but that’s just me, and that’s just right now. Each of us will have to make an informed decision as to what we believe. But just a couple things to keep in mind as you make this decision: for 1750 years of Christian interpretation, people generally accepted this story as historically true. There is no sense in the early Christians that perhaps this story was made up, maybe it didn’t happen, maybe it’s not real, etc. They just weren’t bothered with the questions that really seem to bother us. It’s only in the last 200 years or so that we’ve started to wrestle with the question. Just because have people have said it for ages doesn’t mean it’s always right, but just remember that most Christians have understood it as historical.

The other thing that I must say is that if you choose to say it was a story, please don’t say, "Well, it has to be a story because no person could survive three days in the belly of a whale."
We Christians are people who believe in miracles. Our life depends on a most uncommon miracle, a dead Messiah coming back to life. And if that can happen, if death itself can be overthrown, then certainly, a man can be in the belly of a whale for three days before being thrown up onto the seashore. Certainly, it would be unusual; certainly, it would require some bending of the usual way of things; certainly, it would be a surprising thing. But that is, after all, the point: it would be a miracle. And God can do miracles. So you can believe it’s a parable because it’s different from the other prophets, or because it just seems more like a story to you. But don’t believe it’s a parable just because it’s hard to believe. God does things that are hard to believe everyday. If you look at Jonah and say, "Couldn’t be; nobody could survive three days in the belly of a whale" then you must remember that there was a time in which you too were completely lost and only survived because God stepped in and did a miracle in your life. If you believe God has done a miracle in your life, then be careful before you say He couldn’t do another kind of miracle in someone else’s life. You might just be surprised at what God can do when He sets his mind to it.

Whether or not the whale was real in Jonah’s time, though, we must realize that the whale is real in each of our lives. What do I mean by that? Simply this. There are times in each of our lives where we find ourselves like Jonah. Look at the first seven verses of Jonah’s prayer, where Jonah talks in detail about the terror he finds himself in as he descends to the bottom of the ocean. He says, "Out of the belly of Sheol I cried." Sheol was the name the Hebrews gave to the land of the dead. "You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me and all your waves and billows passed over me. Then I said. ‘I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again on your holy temple?"

Jonah’s despair is palpable here. Nothing was so painful to an Israelite than the thought they would never again see the Temple. The Temple was where God lived, where the glory descended from above, their connection to the glory days when they were strong and the Temple was the hope that those days would come again. To be in the presence of the Temple was to have hope, to know that God was and is and is to come. And here, as Jonah is sinking deeper into the ocean, and the water sweeps over him, he thinks, "I’m a dead man, and God has completely forgotten me. Out of sight, out of mind. God has forgotten me and I will die for sure and I will never again be blessed to see the holy temple of our God."

We all go through times like Jonah, where we sense that we are completely forgotten by God. We are overwhelmed by the swelling tide of life in suburban America, that place as hollow as a cheap chocolate Easter bunny, where everyone is OK on the outside but empty inside; where everyone is keeping just busy enough to keep the demons at bay for one more day, afraid of the day when they cannot be busy anymore, afraid of who they are beneath what they do. And as we sink beneath the waters we fear that we will never look upon God again. We fear that we’ve missed God somehow and that moment of discovery will never come amidst these wasted waves, not in the slick TV preachers, not in the weekly cold repetition of religious obligations, not in the self-help books with five easy steps to spiritual fitness.

And in so doing, we cry out to God. But like Jonah, sometimes we find ourselves sinking still deeper. Listen to Jonah in verse 5: "The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains." In other words, I had seaweed and heaven only knows what else tangled up in my hair, and I was so deep that I was at the very base of the mountains. He goes on and says, "I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever;" "I was going into the land of the dead, and from there there is no return."

But then the text turns: "Yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God. As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, in your holy temple." In other words, "as everything began to close in, as everything was turning dark, in my last moment, you finally heard." And we know that when God heard, at Jonah’s last moment, a whale came out of nowhere and swallowed him up.

It’s a strange way to save someone, a whale. When we think of the way God stepped in to save people in the past, we think of how he parted the Red Sea. Now that was a miracle! Or we think of the way Jesus healed leprosy and blindness, or the way in which the Spirit empowered the disciples to do great miracles of power in the early church. Those were miracles, straightforward healings–people had needs and miracles met them instantly.

But a whale is, shall we say, a different way to save someone. Probably as Jonah is sinking to the bottom of the sea, he’s thinking, "Well, at least things can’t get any worse." And then he sees a whale which comes up and in one fell swoop swallows him right up, whole, down into a dark, dark, whale’s belly. And as he travels over the bumpy whale tongue, past the uvula, through the esophagus, into the massive, dark, stomach that smells like fish and whale gas, he’s thinking, "Huh; well, I guess things could get worse," and prepares to die. But then he reaches a stop and he realizes, "Hey, I’m still alive! I’m still here!" And for the next three days, Jonah remains in the whale and ponders the strange way in which God saves us. He could have dried up the sea instantly; could have reached down and dragged Jonah up and placed him up on dry land. But instead, God says, "I’m going to send a whale to eat him and vomit him up on dry land."

Why would God save Jonah with a whale? Why not any other more sensible, efficient way? I'm married to a mathematician, and I've come to have an appreciation for the sensible and the efficient. And a whale is neither. Maybe it suggests God has a unique sense of humor. But maybe there is something that happens in a whale that just doesn’t happen any other way. Maybe there, in the whale, was time for Jonah to reflect, to compose himself, to pray, in a way that Jonah wouldn’t have done if God saved him in another way. Whatever the case, God seems to think that Jonah needs to drip a little bit of whale juice before things get back to normal.

Let me suggest that the same God who saved Jonah with a whale saves us in very similar ways.
It might seem absurd that God saved Jonah with a whale, but then think about how God saved you. If I were God, and there were a person I wanted to save, a person who believed in me and wanted to serve me, here’s what I would do: I would treat that person special. I would give them the nicest house on the block. I would protect them from ever being hurt physically or emotionally. Their favorite baseball team (the Phillies of course) would win every game; their churches would be filled with perfect pastors, and perfect friends who never gossiped about each other, never let each other down, took part in everything the church did, had great ideas and tons of energy. They would never fail at anything they tried. That’s what I would do if I were God.

But I’m not. And those of you who live the Christian life know that it is nothing like I just described. We don’t usually live in the nicest houses on the block. We open ourselves sometimes to real physical and emotional pain, because we live as a counterculture in the world, sometimes a despised counterculture. We attend churches with real people, fallible pastors and parishioners who fail each other time and time again. We fail and many times in our lives, the life of discipleship is a hard slog, a tough go where we fall short time and again, get up, dust ourselves off, pray to do better, and fail again. And don’t even get me started on the Phillies.

Do you see what I’m saying? Don’t be surprised Jonah was saved in such a strange way–because there’s something strange (and wonderful) about our salvation as well. God seems to think that we need to drip some whale juice in our lives too. Before the Christian life reaches its consummation, before we feast with Christ into eternity, we’ve got to spend some time here on Earth, in the whale’s belly. It sure beats drowning, but things will not be perfect here.

And yet, for as strange as the whale’s belly is, it is only there throughout the book that Jonah gets it right. Jonah gets it wrong again and again when he’s on his own; he messes up again and again when things are normal. But in the whale’s belly, he gets it right. He says, "Those who worship powerless idols forsake their true loyalty. But I will sacrifice to you thankfully because you are a powerful God." In other words, "people worship things not worth worshiping all the time. And eventually, those folks are going to realize how foolish they are and give it up. But I will never give you up, Lord, for you are worth worshiping." It’s hard to believe this is the same Jonah who so consistently messes up, who so consistently is wrong, because here–in the whale’s belly–he gets it right. Maybe God knew what He was doing after all, saving Jonah with a whale.

And maybe–just maybe–God knows what he is doing with you too. I don’t know exactly what’s going on in each life here today, but like Jonah, you might be thinking, "This is a strange way to be saved"–I mean, it beats drowning, but it sure ain’t perfect. Let me say to you that it was in a similar situation, in a stinky, fishy whale’s belly, that Jonah learned to praise God, that Jonah learned what was really true and important. It was in the darkness inside a whale that Jonah learned to perceive the light. Maybe you are where you are now so that God can teach you the same things.

In Luke 12:32, Jesus is talking to worried disciples. And he says, "Do not fear, little flock, for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom." He is talking to disciples who are fearing not having shelter and food, not having enough to live. And he’s telling them, "Don’t worry about these little things, because whether you see it or not, you are kings. Whether you know it or not, you were made for more than this world. Whether you recognize it now or not, there are more important things–and God will give you everything you need to get there.
And so it is for us who are in the whale’s belly. Something much more important is happening than just having nice houses, having everything we want, having a pleasant life. Something greater is at stake than our personal happiness or fulfillment. Like Jonah, we are being prepared, re-wired to praise God instead of running away from him. Like the disciples, we are being fit to receive a Kingdom, fit to be citizens of a Kingdom of light where God dwells and lives in communion with His people always. May this be true of this day for you and each day you remain in this whale’s belly. Amen.