Tuesday, January 31, 2006

A surreal encounter

I was watching 7th Heaven last night with Jill when our doorbell rang. I came downstairs to a fast-talking person who had two candles in his hands, and asked which one I liked better. I was just kind of floored (and it takes a lot for me to lose my composure) and he said, "Don't worry, we're not selling candles, we just want to show you the new Kirby vacuum cleaner. You don't mind if we show it to you, do you?"

Normally, I'd have said, "Well, yes, I do mind," but I my head was still spinning from how quickly this conversation was happening that before I knew it, two sales reps--a man and a woman no more than 21 years old--were on their way into my home and setting up a truly majestic vacuum cleaner. The fellow who had done the initial bit with the candles was apparently the boss and these two were now going to demonstrate and try to sell this vacuum cleaner.

My first thought was "Oh, no. How did I get myself into this? How long will it take for them to leave?" But sometimes God is in the interruptions, you know. And I wondered how often these folks, salespeople who constantly must try to penetrate the near-impregnable privacy of suburbia, are treated as people, much less received hospitably. So I asked how they enjoyed their work, offered them a drink.

They demonstrated their vacuum, though it quickly became evident we wouldn't buy it--even though it was really an amazing vacuum cleaner. They put little filters into the cleaner, rather than a bag, and would pull the filters out to demonstrate how much dirt it picked up from our apparently clean carpet. They poured baking powder on our carpet, had me try to vacuum it up with our current vacuum cleaner (a Hoover affectionately known as "Big Blue"), and then vacuumed where I had just vacuumed and pulled up so much more baking soda. They vacuumed our mattress for dustmites. They vacuumed and vacuumed and vacuumed.

But at the beginning of the conversation, I mentioned that I was a pastor. And interspersed with the vacuum-talk was talk about the fact this young woman had been thrown out of her home a few years back. The young man, father of an 8-month-old girl, wondered what it meant to be baptized or to have his baby baptized. The girl wondered about how preachers get paid--was it from "the tip basket" that gets passed around during church or some other way? We talked about how each of us has a job where people sometimes ignore you, shut you out, or at the very least aren't buying what you're selling.

In all, I hope that they left feeling loved. I hope they left knowing someone was onto their schtick but loved them anyway. After all, isn't that what the Father does for us? We're all essentially vacuum cleaner salespeople, trying to sell enough to earn the all-expenses-paid trip to the Bahamas or Vegas or wherever it is this month. We call it different things, more respectable things, perhaps, but we creep around the earth trying to do the same thing, to make what we consider a nice life for ourselves. But the Father knows that there's a different, higher way to live; yet He patiently listens as we cajole and plead for Him to give us what we want, telling him why it's so much better than His other plans for us. Most often, He's not buying either; but He's always listening and with Him, we are always at home. He looks at us, and though we know he sees right through us, sees clearly our sin and our faults, is consumed with love for us people, who he calls the pinnacle of his creation.

In the end, we didn't buy a vacuum cleaner; though their fast-talking manager offered it to us for a mere thousand bucks rather than the initial sixteen hundred. (Maybe we also witnessed to the importance of living within your means!)

Big Blue cost $80, and I think it picks up at least 8% of the dirt that Kirby did, after all. Just don't look too close next time you visit!

Monday, January 30, 2006

Sermon from Sunday, January 29

Hi all--here's the sermon from yesterday, January 29, the third series in the four-part series on Jonah. The text is from Jonah 3:1 through 4:5. Join us next week for the last installment!

As we have been looking at the book of Jonah, we have seen one constant: when things are going well for Jonah, Jonah screws up. In the beginning of the book, when God comes to give Jonah the great gift of his word, when God gives him the great gift of a mission, Jonah screws up. He says, “That’s not a gift; that’s a curse.” But when things start to fall apart, when Jonah falls on hard times, that is when he does get it right. As he sinks to the bottom of the sea, as he drifts into the belly of the whale, he begins to pray and cry out. When Jonah is going through hard times, it is then that he actually gets it right. Jonah’s earthly success seems to mark him for spiritual failure; and his earthly struggles seem to mark him for spiritual success.

Today’s text finds this pattern holding true. In this text we find Jonah at the height of his success as a prophet, during the evangelization of Nineveh. Naturally, he also is at his absolute lowest point spiritually. This is the way it seems to go for Jonah.

We read, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time,” and again we are reminded of what a precious gift it is to receive the word of the Lord. It came to very few people in the Bible, a few prophets here and there, and Jonah is one of the privileged few. But Jonah is doubly blessed, for he has already received the word of the Lord once, and he blew it. But God chooses to give Jonah another chance, and so again the word of the Lord comes to him, that precious honey from the lips of the Father comes to this mere mortal. And this time, at least to his credit, Jonah goes to Nineveh. This time, at least things are going better than last time; at least Jonah doesn’t take off and go the other way. No, he goes to Nineveh this time, and he arrives at the great city, the city that takes three days to walk across.
Jonah walks into Nineveh and looks around at all the things he sees around him: the shops peddling unfamiliar foods and clothes, the Ninevite kids playing soccer in the streets, the idols set up to foreign and false gods. And Jonah walks in for a full day, and says, “Wow...where do I start?” And he decides that this is as good a place as any, so he sets down his bag, and listens for a message from the Lord.

God gives him a sermon that is not very good by modern standards, but fans of short sermons would like it: it’s only eight words long. “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” It’s not very nuanced; there’s no introduction, no conclusion, no cute illustration from Jonah’s own life; it’s not really a very good sermon at all. In fact, I kind of wonder what it would have been like to hear this man–who just came out of a whale–drop his bags and shout this at the top of his lungs to a city he didn’t know would listen.

Oh, but they did listen. From the first person that heard him that fateful day until his message got to every bungalow and apartment in the city, everybody believed him. And we read that Jonah’s message shook up the Israelites so much that they proclaimed a fast. Everybody was so moved by Jonah’s words, so scared at the prospect of divine judgment, that they stopped eating, hoping that their prayers and fasting would reach heaven and put off the destruction. They put on sackcloth, showing that they were a people in mourning, showing that they were leaving behind their old lives and taking God seriously.

In fact, when the news of Jonah’s message gets to the royal palace, the king gets up and takes off his beautiful, purple, soft, royal robes, and even he puts on the prickly sackcloth of mourning. He does not sit back on his comfortable, immaculate throne, but sits in a pile of ashes and covers himself with symbols of mourning.

Now we live in a day and age when politicians never ever show weakness. They try to present a perfect front to all people at all times; if a politician ever does change his or her mind, they go to great lengths to show that they never changed their mind at all, but they have always believed and acted that way. To show inconsistency is to show weakness, and politicians don’t show weakness. But the king of Nineveh makes an announcement that is not at all like that, but an announcement that is frankly desperate, in a way our politicians would never do. He says, “No one is to eat or drink; no person, no animal. Every living thing–people, animals alike–shall be covered in sackcloth to show that they are mourning. And together, all Ninevites are to cry out to God. And all the people shall turn away from their evil ways, and from the violence that is in their hands.” And the king closes his speech: “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind...” It’s very different from today’s politicians, isn’t it?

It’s hard for me to tell you exactly how amazing this response is to Jonah’s sermon. He could not have asked for any more. Jonah’s words led to a complete and utter change in this capital city of Assyria. The people gave up their old ways and took on new ways. The people stopped doing violence. They recognized their sinfulness and they fasted and cried out to God that God would heal them and spare their land.

As a pastor, you always have these hopes and dreams for your words. I write a lot of words. A LOT of words. I write between 350 and 400 pages every year for the church and I write about 100 pages a year for school. And I always have my dreams for these words, that they’ll do something like this for those who hear them. You know what this is like: for example, those of you who teach for a living know that you hope somehow that you’re going to change lives. We all hope that something we do will make a difference. We want life to be about more than just our own comfort, more than just making money and saving for retirement. And it’s no different for pastors. Any time you create a sermon or a devotional, you hope that something like this will happen, that those who hear it will have a change of heart because of something you’ve written. Every so often, something like this does happen; someone says, “I was really changed because of reading that or hearing that.” But most often, your words at least for the time being don’t seem to have much of an impact. Maybe some years down the line, people recall them at an important time. Just because you don’t hear about that kind of life-change doesn’t mean it’s not happening. But still, often as a pastor, I drive home Sunday afternoon and, like the rest of you driving home from work, I wonder, “Did what I did today mean anything?”

I mean, I would love–just once–to have the gift Jonah received. Everybody heard him–everybody got it–everybody changed their lives from top to bottom. Those eight little words changed the world, and it looked like Nineveh was going to go down the road of becoming a godly power and force in the world. Who knows, from that point on, how world history could change because of the words that Jonah said–anything seems possible.

In fact, the change in Nineveh was so profound, so complete, so total, that when God saw it, we read the truly remarkable phrase, “God changed his mind.” God decided that he was not going to punish the people of Nineveh after all, and he relented from the calamity that was going to come upon them.

And at the time, I’m telling you, Jonah should have been jumping around for joy. I mean, can you imagine being God’s partner in this amazing thing? And this is what was; it’s amazing to think about it, but it’s true. Jonah was God’s partner in this marvelous work of redemption that turned a whole city around. Lives were saved, and the people turned to a new way of life that was true life, and Jonah got to play an integral part in it. His work DID mean something!

You don’t need to be a prophet, a priest or a minister to know the amazing feeling of partnering with God to do something great. In fact, it’s something you should know all the time. Those who serve as greeters, those who volunteer their time to serve the poor, those who choose to give a portion of what they have that God’s word might be preached and lived here–all of us are given a chance to partner with God in what God is doing in the world. And when you get a chance to see it, really see it, when you see that this person has become a Christian or that person has a new chance on life because of something you did, it’s an amazing feeling to know that you partnered with God to help that to happen. You were the partner of the Almighty God in achieving his purposes in the Earth.

But do you know that Jonah’s spirit is so profoundly disordered that he cannot see that partnering with the Almighty God is a good thing. His spirit is so messed up that he would rather see 120,000 residents of Nineveh die in a calamity than to see them come to new life spiritually and physically. He goes to God and he says, “O Lord! Isn’t this what I said while I was still in my own country?”

We can see now how turned around Jonah truly is, how truly mixed up he is, because look!–what he is saying is utter nonsense. He sees that 120,000 people have come to new life, and he says, “Didn’t I tell you this is what would happen?” It’s hard for me to find words for how foolish Jonah’s response is here. I mean, imagine for you, the perfect day. You get plenty of sleep, wake up, go into work and find out you’ve been promoted to a great job with a great salary, your friends throw you a surprise birthday party and then you win a contest for front-row tickets where you go and watch the Phillies win the World Series. It’s been that kind of perfect day for Jonah, but his spirit is so corrupt that he can’t see what a beautiful day it is. All he can say is, “Didn’t I tell you this would happen?” In the midst of all these gifts, all Jonah can see is problems that are of his own imagination.

And Jonah isn’t done. He says, “This is why I fled to Tarshish. You know, God, I knew you were gracious, I knew you were merciful, I knew you were loving, slow to anger, I knew all this about you, and that’s why I ran away from you!” Of course, this is just as stupid as the first thing Jonah said. Here, he says all the same things we say in our hymns and in our worship: “God, you are gracious, merciful, loving, and kind.” But whereas that drives a normal person to want to be closer to God, it drives Jonah further away from God.

And so Jonah closes with one final ironic statement: “Please kill me, Lord, for it is better for me to die than live.” Do you see how twisted Jonah has it all through these verses? He thinks Nineveh being saved is a bad thing; he thinks God being merciful and loving is a bad thing; he thinks being dead would be a good thing. There is no other way to say it–Jonah is completely blind. He cannot see what is good and what is bad anymore. God acts in a loving way toward him, but he perceives it as hate. God gives him good gifts, but Jonah perceives them as a curse.

We must see how Jonah is a figure of the human condition; we have to see how Jonah is like us. Look at the gifts God gives us to live the Christian life. He says, "People can't do this alone; I'm going to plop them down in communities, in churches where they can care for each other and learn and take on the discipline of worship." What a gift--but we say, "It's too much of a commitment. I'm not interested." Or take prayer--what a gift to know the Creator of the Universe says, "Come and talk to me anytime, about anything; on top of it, here are 2000 years worth of written prayers and prayer heritage that you can take advantage of." But we say, "I'm not interested--Smackdown is on tonight." How on earth did we get here? How did we begin interpreting God's gifts as burdens and curses? Perhaps we see now how Jonah is not so different from the rest of us.

Each week, I put a quote at the top of the bulletin. And I’m never exactly sure how many of you read them, but I want to highlight this one. Dallas Willard, a writer I deeply love, says that most of us today live at full-speed but we are completely unaware whether we are flying upside down or right-side up. Know what? I think he’s right. Did you ever look at somebody upside down? You know, kind of tilt your head until their mouth is on top and their eyes are on the bottom? Kinda looks funny, doesn’t it? But I’ll tell you that if you stay that way long enough, it will start to look normal. In time, if you stay upside down, you’ll think that’s normal, and if you ever do get back to right-side up, you’ll think that looks weird. This is precisely what happened to Jonah: he lived such an upside-down life that he began to call right wrong, and wrong right. He perceived love as hate; he perceived life as death, and death as life.

The world desperately needs people who are willing to learn the lesson of Jonah today. We humans are such fragile creatures; we are so given to following our own way, our own passions, without ever stopping to check if we are upside down. If we are upside down, like Jonah, we might just find that following our passions, following our desires, might just lead us directly away from God when we think we are walking to him; our desires might just lead us to death even when we are certain they are leading us to life.

In life, it is the decisions we make with our spirit that are the most important. Take an example: cultivating a prayer life is far more important than which company you work for. Why? Because cultivating a prayer life will keep you right-side up! A rooted prayer life will teach us to live the right-side up life, and in so doing, we’ll be better equipped to make decisions like which company to work for. Or take another example: rooting your life in public worship is one of the most important decisions you can make. Making a discipline of each week coming to church and listening for the voice of God in all the things that happen here, making friends here who can help you to grow in your faith, those kind of things will keep you right-side up! We may feel that there are other, more pressing matters, but the fact is that if we neglect the spiritual life, if we are not striving to better imitate God, if we are not trying to figure out what it is that God wants us to do and then do it, we will turn upside down, and then we really are sunk. Then, when we are upside down, we will try to do the right things but we will resent God and each other; we will try to live the right kind of life but find ourselves enslaved to compulsions and behaviors we don’t want to be enslaved to.

The great task of life is discovering God’s will and surrendering to it; and I don’t say that because I want life to be hard. I say it because discovering God’s will and surrendering to it ensure that we remain right-side up, receiving God’s love as true love, receiving God’s life as true life.