Monday, June 27, 2011

Jonah Beyond Our Boundaries To The Compassion Of God (part 4): Jonah chapter 4: Anger at God's Love.

When we lived in Napier as a family we’ve gone down to the fish hook festival that Ngati Kahungunu put on to mark Waitangi day, the kids really love the fireworks display. This year we got all-rugged up and went and sat on the Westshore side of the Ahuriri harbour to watch the fireworks. We got there early to get a good spot. It was hard waiting with the children because they were so excited about the possibility of this wonderful display. They were bouncing round and full of chatter. Then at 9 o’clock we watched the pyrotechnicians (if that’s what you call people who set off fireworks) flick the switch and  ‘boom’.  It was a great display full of noise and amazing colours, it even had that element of danger as one of the fireworks didn’t go the way it was supposed to it seemed to head straight towards us.

I wonder how we would have felt if the pyrotechnicians had come along at 9:00 O’clock and instead of flicking the switch had disconnected the wires leading out to the barge in the middle of the harbour. AS they were doing it over the public address system the message came. “We have changed our mind there won’t be any fireworks display tonight’. I know I’d be rather angry I mean we’d kept the kids up to watch it. The kids would be grumpy all the way home in the van. They’d advertised it, they probably got government funding for it. But I hadn’t paid to come along, I hadn’t earned the display by being a great citizen of New Zealand it wasn’t mine by right. It was a gift from Nagti Kahangunu. What right would I have of being angry? Trivial you might say?

Jonah had gone out of Nineveh and sat down to watch the fireworks, to be on hand when God destroyed the great city of Nineveh. It was a long wait forty days God had said and so Jonah sat out there and waited. But God changed his mind, he saw the reaction of the people of the great city and he heard their prayers and did not send any calamity.

Jonah’s reaction was that he got angry with God. He cries out to God ‘Right from the beginning he had resisted coming to Nineveh the capital city of his countries greatest enemy because he just knew that God is gracious quick to bless and slow to anger and that God would be consistent to his nature and show them mercy. Damn it. And he did. No fire and brimstone from heaven like with Sodom and Gomorrah, They would have deserved it God, no invading army no great dust storm from out of the south. No earthquake, flood or plague of frogs even, you could at least have sent an infestation of fleas or head lice but no. Only God’s compassion and grace and that makes Jonah so angry he wished he was dead.

God’s response to Jonah is ‘Jonah what right do you have to be angry?’ Lets face it God was only acting in a manner consistent with his very character. He was doing the very thing that makes him a good and righteous God. The way Jonah described God was a creed of Israel, a reason for praising God: “ God is slow to chide and quick to bless’. It echoed the very basis that Israel had for hope in the midst of their own disobedience. It’s pretty much word for word what the prophet Joel says in Joel 2:12-14.

Even now declares the Lord
Return to me with all your heart
With fasting and weeping and mourning

Rend your heart and not your garments
Return to the LORD your God
For he is  gracious and compassionate,
Slow to anger and abounding in love
And he relents from sending calamity.
Who knows he may relent
And leave behind a blessing

This was the character of God that Jonah had experienced with the whale and a second call to go to Nineveh.

If this chapter was a movie there may well be the sound of eerie music and then a wavering of the screen, the tell tale sign of heading into a flash back. Because the rest of the chapter seems to take place while Jonah is out in the desert waiting for God to destroy the city.

He sets up a little shelter and waits and sees what God would do. Now God causes a vine to grow up over his shelter and give him some respite from the sun. This may not seem such an amazing thing or us but in the desert heat of the near east again it was a sign that God cared for Jonah, he keeps him alive. Then God sends a worm to attack the plant just as he has sent the whale. Both great and small obey the LORD. The worm attacks the plant and as the sun comes up a scorching wind blows across the desert and the vine withers and dies. Jonah is left to the full force of a fierce and scorching desert day, the wind, the heat and the sun. Just to give you an idea of how harsh that can be,  in some Muslim countries the judicial system is lenient on people who commit crimes during the wind known as the sirocco because it is so fierce it can affect peoples behaviour and drive them to do crazy things. Jonah suffers the full extent of the elements. Perhaps a foretaste of what he had wished on his enemies.

Jonah is so angry at the demise of the vine he just wants to die. Maybe we can be angry at God grace. Why should Nineveh be saved and yet Israel your people be oppressed by them?  There are many reasons why we get angry at God. I mean God how could that person get better and this person die. How could innocent people and animals suffer and die at the hands of evil people and natural disasters. Come on God why do these things always happen to me, not that other person. The psalms and wisdom literature of the Old Testament are full of these cries of his people.

God asks Jonah why is he angry at the plant dying? Now on Wednesday morning before I first preached on this passage, a man I swim with told me that out his way there had been helicopters and wind machines going from the middle of the night. The winegrowers were furiously trying to save their grapes and fruit from an unseasonal frost that could have been disastrous to them. You could imagine they could quite rightly get upset. They had planted and tended the vines, invested time money and energy into this year’s crop and there is an unseasonal cold snap and it’s all gone. Maybe they would have the right to shake their fist at heaven. But as God says to Jonah he hadn’t cultivate this plant or weeded it or tended it he had simply benefited from the shade it provided. How could he be upset at its demise and so uncaring about the demise of a city? Yes it was the capital city of his enemies but there were well over one hundred thousand innocents in the city, how could he wish their demise and destruction. Not to mention many animals, animals whose only crime it seemed was that Assyrians owned them.  He had used the fate of the bush as an object lesson for Jonah. It is a challenge for us as well.

God’s compassion is big enough that it reaches out to all people.
How big is our compassion?

God’s compassion reaches out not only to Israel but to their enemies as well.

What boundaries do we place on our compassion? Are there racial boundaries? socio-economic boundaries? The boundary fence of a prison? The boundary fence of the gated communities that are growing around our suburb?  The boundary that it’s someone else while some of our people suffer.

God’s compassion was big enough for the great city.
How big is our compassion?

Right from the beginning of the book there is an ambiguity in how we are to view Nineveh. God’s initial concern for the city could have been that it was doing great evil, it was Israel’s enemy, or it could be that it was facing great trouble. It is seen as a great city, this can mean great size and population or reflect its prominence in the world order or it can have the meaning of being important to God.

Can we see God’s call to show his compassion to the whole city? Or are we content to think like Jonah did of that God’s care and compassion was limited to him as an individual or to his chosen people. I was shocked by an acquaintance who mentioned that God loved the local church and died for the local church and I had to recheck my theology and hear again that most commonly quoted but oft misheard verse John 3:16 for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son’. Perhaps we need to add and God loved it so much that he is sending out his loved local church into the city with his message to show and tell them of his love.

God’s compassion is big enough that he was willing to send his servant into that city.
How big is our compassion?

All the way through the book Jonah was very uncomfortable with what God had called him to do. He tried to run away. He sat down and waited for the end to come for Nineveh. But he went and did what God had told him to.

What comfort zones are we prepared to step out of even reluctantly so that the people of the city will hear, will respond and not only stop doing evil but will come into a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. I can’t help but think that the church can be like that shelter outside the city where we gather and wait for things to end.

God’s compassion was big enough to be extended to Jonah
How big is our compassion

God’s compassion and patience was shown to Jonah again and again, even in explaining things too him in the object lesson of the withered vine yet at the end of the book he is still the closed off, bigoted person that he was at the beginning. He knows God’s love and compassion he has experienced it again and again, it’s a gift… But at the end of the book he is still angry with God, angry that God is not like him.

How much are we moved and do we change as we experience the love and forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ.  You know there are many valid reasons to be angry at God. There are many valid reasons not to want to show compassion on other people. But the reality is that just as we have been shown God’s grace we need to be moved to be more like God. It’s not that God becomes more like us, sharing our likes and dislikes our biases rather we become more like his Son Jesus: That we show love to our enemies and to all people because that is what God is like. Can we step beyond our boundaries to the boundless compassion of God.  

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Faith is spelt R*I*S*K: and a quote from Theodore Rooservelt

There is a lot happening in my life at the moment. The chapel here at Auckland University is being renovated and its hard to concentrate amidst Ramset nails, buzz saws and other construction noises. The funding for the church plant I have been involved in is coming to an end (sadly without any other sources) and I am being forced to consider other options and possibilities for my life. There is a real sense of grief and questioning about what I could have done better. Amidst that I have also discovered the Auckland Public library  reserve system and have been requesting books I have wanted to read for a long time. One of those is 'In The Company Of Heroes', (2003, Bantam Press ) in which Micheal J Durant (with the help of Steven Hartov) tells his story of the shooting down of his Blackhawk Helicopter and his captivity and ordeal in Somali in 1993. It is a story of great courage and heroism and perseverance in the face of adversity. The book starts with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt that I found both inspiring and helpful as I wrestle with evaluating the last three years of my life. I share it with you.

"It is not the critic who counts, not the one whom points out how the strong man (person, to give the quote a 21st Century sensibility)  stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man (person) who is actually in the arena; whose face is mari3ed by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes up short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotion and spends himself (themselves) in a worthy cause; who at best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who, at worst if he fails, at least while daring greatly; so that his (their) place shall never be with those cold and timid soul who know neither victory or defeat."
-Theodore Roosevelt (Sorbonne, Paris April 23rd 1910)

I am always reminded of my New Testament lecturer at Bible College coming back from a John Wimber conference saying he felt inspired and challenged by Wimber's assertion that faith was spelt R*I*S*K (and I have heard it used in many other places as well since)and I have remembered that not just because I am an atrocious speller but because of its profound challenging truth. I hope I will continue to have faith, dream dreams and follow my saviour out into the arena.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Jonah: Beyond Our Boundaries To The Compassion Of God (part 3): (Jonah 3-4:3) I'll tell you whats so fantastic... God's Compassion.

I guess we’ve always enjoyed the fantastic when it comes to entertainment and the stories we tell. In the realm of film and video, new animatronics and digital technology has meant that the fantastic can become more real life, we could imagine an island full of dinosaurs, our beautiful countryside could become JRR Tolkein’s middle earth complete with epic battles that pit computer generated armies of Orcs, Trolls, Wargs, Olephants against men, elves and dwarfs. Equally fantastic realm of Narnia, or the world of Avatar, and seeing The Titanic once again float(At least on the screen) . People defy gravity. The fantastic has almost become commonplace.

But I can’t help but wonder if we are living in a time when the fantastic has stepped into the real world and become very much common place. You just have to look around you and almost on a regular daily basis new technology and discoveries and breakthroughs are reported to us as totally changing the way we live. Ten years ago mobile phones were as big as a brick and a novelty item, now the idea of video phone calls that we’re the realm of science fiction classics like star trek with its sub space communications are a reality. I lost my sight a while ago due to diabetes and people tell me that what the doctors were able to do for my eyes just wasn’t possible even a few short years ago, in fact would have seemed miraculous.

It’s fantastic what we are learning. Our ability to look at the smallest building blocks of life at a cellular and DNA level and gaze increasingly further and further out into the vastness of the universe leads us to constantly have to reevaluate how we think and understand life the universe and everything. At these edges of science people are once again comfortable to talk not in terms of evolution by chance the possibility of design. When science first looked off into space and observed nature and proclaimed they couldn’t see the finger print of God perhaps it was just that they hadn’t looked far enough or close enough. What to them seemed too fantastic to believe now becomes believable as they gaze on the fantastic

AS a story one of the main things that makes the book of Jonah so memorable is that it is saturated with the fantastic and to tell you the truth I don’t know if I believe it is fantastic reality or just a fantastic story. I do know most people remember the book for the great fish. The fantastic miraculous way God chose to save Jonah from drowning. We all wonder about the large creatures that lurk just below the surface. If you’ve been out whale watching in Kaikoura you’ll know the feeling of being dwarfed by the immense size of the whales that stop off there like its a takeaway bar on the side of the highway on which they travel the vast distance from Tonga to the Antarctic. They are fantastic. Or if you’ve ever seen a sharks fin rise out of the water when your in it... that’s not so fantastic.

When you read the chapter three there is something even more fantastic than the fish. A lone Hebrew prophet comes to the great city, the city of Nineveh, a city great not only in size but importance and on his first day preaching in the city can cause the whole city to repent from its evil ways and show its remorse before God. Maybe the picture conjures up images for you of that lone street evangelist talking to an empty square, sharing good news when no one is listening, they and we simply drop our heads and walk by embarrassed. Or the rather shabby, scruffy, wild-eyed crazy person shouting the end of the world is neigh and we wonder at how Jonah could have such an impact. It can only be God’s spirit at work. The people of Ninevah hear Jonah’s simple message ‘In 40 days Nineveh will be destroyed’ and respond. Firstly it’s a people movement, then at an official level as the King hears and responds. All the people are ordered to wear sackcloth and the people and animals to fast. These are ways of showing they are sorry for their sins and to repent before God. God sees their heart felt sorrow and saves the city.

It’s fantastic that God shows compassion to Nineveh. AS you read through the book of Jonah you will see that there are two words used for God. When God speaks to Jonah we have the Hebrew YHWH which we translate LORD. This was the name by which Israel knew their God. It is the ‘I AM’ of the burning bush. It designates a knowing of God and a being his people. When the people of Nineveh react and repent to Jonah’s message the Hebrew word El Elohim is used which means God most high. What strikes me here is that God had compassion on the people of Nineveh even when they do not know him but simply respond to the little they knew. We see the compassion of God that as they responded even a little way to him he showed them his compassion and saves them. The picture that comes to mind is that of the father in the parable of the prodigal son. Who sees his son far off in the distance and does not wait for him to come close but rather abandoning his dignity hitches up his robes and runs into the street to meet him and welcome him back, such fantastic compassion.

It would have been fantastic for Israel to see their enemies responding so positively to the LORD. Israel had heard many prophets speak to them down through the years and they had seen again and again God’s mercy and grace and they were a stiff-necked people. The people of Nineveh hear one message and they react and repent. It is as shocking as Luke’s gospel that shows scoundrel Zaccheus, not the pious rich young ruler, as the example of what it meant to become a follower of Jesus. Maybe in our day it would be as shocking as a masked terrorist missile launcher in hand who repents and renounces violence in response to God’s grace while an American preacher still calls for ‘God’s wrath and vengence’ over 9/11. 

Moviegoers today talk of getting tired of the special effects and the fantastic and what they seek is the human story. In the book of Jonah amidst the fantastic it is Jonah’s relationship with YHWH, the LORD that’s the real story. This is the core drama. In the Narrative it’s worked out in four main scenes. Jonah running away from God on the boat to the western reaches of the Mediterranean, Jonah inside the fish thanks God for saving him, Jonah obeys God preaches in Nineveh and God saves the city and Jonah alone with God sitting in the desert waiting to die.

If it were a stage show the first part of this chapter would be like the main character standing in front of the curtains hearing again from God to go and say what the Lord tells him to Nineveh. Then the curtains role back and there he is in Nineveh. Like all Hebrew narratives it concertinas time to cut to the important parts of the story. In this God gives Jonah a second chance. Jonah had blown it and yet God gives Jonah one more go. When you have a look at the scriptures we see that God’s people and servants down through the ages are fallen sinful people, people that have stuffed up big time, made mistakes done wrong things are flawed and broken yet God is gracious to them and God calls them to share that grace with the world around them, even the enemy they cannot love. Brandon Manning tells the story of a valley girl, that’s the cultural sub group that comes from the Fernando valley near Los Angeles, whose response to reading the Gospel of Luke was “Wow, Like God’s really into ragamuffins”. 

It’s fantastic but yes God is into broken and hurting people. He is prepared to entrust his mercy and grace to people who have let him down have tried to run away, maybe even have spent all their lives running from him. Peter the only other figure in scripture who seems to have experienced the dramatic Spirit inspired response that Jonah did, when he was at Cornelius’s house and the spirit fell on the gentiles even before he’d finished preaching, was the one who had denied Jesus three times.

It encourages us to realise that God is able to use even us with all our faults and foibles our dislikes and even our prejudices and boundaries to bring the good news of God’s compassion shown in Jesus Christ to the world he loves. He didn’t even wait till Jonah was perfect or had got his faults sorted out.

AS Paul says in Romans 5, It is God’s desire for all to be saved. It is still the fantastic compassion of God that not only his favoured people but all people come to Know Jesus Christ. But how will they turn to God if they have not heard, how will they hear if no one is sent. The compassion of the story of Jonah is that God sent someone even disobedient uncaring hateful Jonah and the spirit worked in people’s lives.  It’s fantastic maybe even to think that we too could have the impact that Jonah does hearing and obeying God’s call to speak his word in our world today.

What’s even more fantastic in the book is Jonah’s response to God’s compassion.  A prophet, who is indeed rare in the Old Testament in that he’s listened to and causes great social change, is angry with God, it's like he shakes his fist at the heavens. He knows God is a compassionate God but Nineveh… I mean how could God show such mercy and compassion to Nineveh, Israel’s sworn enemy? I just knew you’d do that God he shouts at heaven. I just knew it, that’s why I didn’t want to come that’s why I tried to run away. It is this fantastic response that is the climax of the book that is supposed to challenge us the most. The book is full of God’s compassion but where is our compassion? It causes us to look at ourselves and wonder at how we respond to God’s mercy. How we respond to God’s call to proclaim his love and grace in the light of our likes and dislikes. It calls us to go beyond our boundaries to the open handed compassion of God.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Jonah: Beyond our Boundaries to God's Compassion part 2... Jonah 2: A Beautiful Equation Receiving Grace-Giving Grace

The picture with this sermon is a fractal called ‘Jonah in the belly of the whale’. What’s a fractal I hear you say? Good question. Fractals are geometric figures that have recurring complex patterns and designs. They originate from the basic idea that a finite sized object can have an infinite border. They have complex patterns that repeat again and again and again as they get smaller and smaller. The Koru or fern leaf is one that occurs in nature. The whirl of the frond is repeated on a smaller scale with individual leaves and then on each leaf and so on. Fractals have come into vouge more recently as computer-generated representations of complex mathematical equations. Part of their beauty is that they are full of vibrant colour because mathematicians can designate any colour to particular numerical values.

Ok why talk about fractals?

Well if a mathematician looking at this particular fractal is reminded of Jonah in the belly of the whale it shows us how well known the story of Jonah is.

Also I worry that sermons can be like fractals. The beauty of the shapes and patterns that are generated with the equations captivates people imagination. However if we were to simply display the equation that they represent to people most of us, me included, would loose interest very fast. We wouldn’t be able to see the beauty hidden in the series of letters and symbols that once feed into a computer produce such amazing images.

I worry that in preaching through the book of Jonah that we can take a great story and in the chapter we are looking at today a heart felt psalm of thanksgiving and somehow loose the beauty and power of them by trying to break it down maybe even trying to turn it into some sort of equation.

The power of the book of Jonah comes from the fact that it is a narrative. It’s a story we can get so caught up in. It’s like the parables Jesus tells because in the end it catches you. It sneaks up and then really challenges us to look at who we are and how we respond to a gracious God and live in the world.

It is the story of a gracious and compassionate God and someone who does not want God’s love to be shown to the people he considers his enemies. 

God calls Jonah to go and prophecy a warning of immanent destruction to the city of Nineveh, the capital of Israel’s powerful enemy Assyria.  Jonah knowing that God is gracious and compassionate tries to run away from God. he doesn’t want to give Nineveh the chance to repent.  Nineveh is in the east he tries to head as far west as he can. The ship he’s on is caught in a storm and the crew cast lots and find out Jonah is running away from his God and disobeying him. Jonah is depressed and decides that only his death will appease God so tells the people on the boat to throw him into the sea. Reluctantly they do this. God sends a fish to save Jonah from drowning. While he is in this fish Jonah gives thanks to God for saving him. He promises to serve him and at the end of three days he is vomited up on the shore and heads off to Nineveh.

He tells the people there that the city will be destroyed in forty days and the king calls his people to repent. God spares the city. Jonah simply wants to die I mean How could God be so gracious to Israel’s enemies? In fact Jonah sits down in the desert and simply waits to die. God is gracious to him again and a fast growing vine grows up to offer him shade. When the sun and lack of water causes the plant to wither Jonah is upset, he’s angry with God and God’s reply is to ask how Jonah can be so upset about the plants demise and so uncaring about the fate of a city of well over one hundred thousand innocent children not to mention countless animals.

As I mentioned in part 1 ( ) the Jews read this story on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, where they remember their sins and repent. They response to it with a prayer of confession saying,” We are Jonah”. They have received God’s compassion and yet like Jonah they acknowledge that they have not shown compassion to others. 

This chapter of Jonah is a psalm; a prayer of thanksgiving for God’s deliverance. Like a fractal equation it follows a set formula and like the fractal the expression of that formula is a piece of art in this case poetry.

Pslams of thanks giving start with an acknowledgement that a person was in trouble and God heard their prayer and rescued them. It then outlines the situation they were in and how God delivered them and finishes with thanksgiving, and a promise of future loyalty and service.

In this case Jonah says he cried out to God. In verse 7 Jonah says just as his life was ebbing away he remembered God and called out to him. It’s a great image, blacking out and slipping off into oblivion and in that last second he snaps out of his depression and anger at God and calls out to God for help. 

The imagery used to talk of the situation Jonah is in is both specific but also used in many similar psalms of thanksgiving. The Israelites were a land-based people not people of the sea and for them the sea was an image of chaos and destruction. So you get here the idea of trouble and distress being like being picked up by a great wave and being pounded on the shore. Being caught up and whirled around and around till you have no idea of which way is up or down and your lungs burn for the need of air and you open your mouth to scream and all that happens is that you have to close it quickly or you’ll end up with your mouth filling up with salt water. Hey I’m a surfer I know what that feels like. You could imagine the blind terror of having kelp or seaweed wrap round your head. It’s bad enough when unseen in sneaks up behind you and brushes up against you or touches your leg.  Depression and situations in our life can feel like being caught on the inside of a set of waves. Wave after wave comes in and tumbles you even when you duck dive under the first one. They keep coming and you don’t have enough time or energy to recover before the next one comes.

Jonah acknowledges that his situation is desperate it’s deadly. He would have died without God’s intervention. Again the image is going down in the water. Slowly sinking beyond the swirl and churn of the waves into the cold and increasingly dark depth of the ocean. Jonah would have been in his clothes as he went over the side of the boat so their weight would have pulled him down. But the images move from simple sinking to falling into the very depth of the earth and into the world of the dead with the door closing behind him. In the last second he calls out to God.

Sitting in the cramped uncomfortable darkness of the fish, Jonah realises that God has saved him. His psalm says God heard his prayer and answered him. However from the context of the story we see that the LORD provided a big fish to save him even before he prayed. It is a measure of God’s compassion and grace that even before Jonah’s prayer God had commanded a fish to come and to swallow him. Now I know we want to know what sort of fish or whale it was that swallowed Jonah without chewing him up on the way down. Scientists will tell us that a whale has a throat that is too small to swallow a man. But this is not of concern to Jonah who on reflection wrote the book or of the Lord who inspired him to do it. Mores the pity we like to have these things sorted. All we do know is that Jonah sees God’s miraculous undeserved gracious saving in this act.

In the hours of darkness inside the fish Jonah realises he is not dead that God has saved him so he responds in Prayer. He says he will worship and serve God and ends with the amazing affirmation that ‘Salvation comes from the LORD”.

The LORD Commands the fish to vomit him up on dry land.

You know we are supposed to be left amazed and awestruck by the fantastic way that God chose to save Jonah. It is amazing, beyond belief, that’s the power of it. Jonah is saved from sure destruction and death in such an amazing miraculous way. It shows the awesome extent of God’s grace. As I read the story I can’t help but hear the words of hymns such as ‘amazing grace’ and ‘how can it be’. I can’t help but reflect with equal amazement that God should choose to answer my cries in times of need. That God would even want to save me and call me to be one of his people. You may be quite amazed at that as well. But then if I’m amazed about me well…. However Jonah is still angry that the God who has shown him such grace should dare to be gracious to the people of Nineveh.

In Luke 7  a nameless woman, a prostitute, comes into the house of Simon the Pharisee and washes Jesus feet with her tears and wipes them clean with her hair and anoints them with oil, an act of such love and devotion. Simons response is to think if Jesus was a prophet he’d know what kind of women this was and wouldn’t let her touch him.  Jesus responses by telling a parable about forgiven debts which ends with the barb those who are forgiven much love much. The woman leaves knowing that she is forgiven. The hook of the book of Jonah is not in the mouth of the fish but in the mouth of Jonah. Jonah is forgiven much, loved much, miraculously saved when he repents, but he can’t stand the fact that God could show that love and grace to his enemies, not even their innocent children and animals. 

Fractals are patterns that repeat what happens on the large scale on a small scale. Our response to God’s grace and love  is to replicate it and repeat it in our lives, beyond our finite boundaries to God’s infinite compassion.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Jonah (beyond our boundaries to God's Compassion (part 1 Jonah chapter 1; Saying No to God's Compassion)

The story of Jonah is one of the most well known stories in the bible. Even people who don’t read the scriptures know the story of Jonah. At least the fish bit and lets face it we all have our own fishing story’s. The story of the one that got away or the one we caught get bigger each time we tell it. Even the real ones can seem amazing like a friend from Rotorua who caught a record weight marlin while fishing in an aluminium dingy. He had to call for help from a bigger boat because they were being dragged way out to sea by the fish they had hooked.  Even I am not above telling fish stories. I mean last time I went out fishing here in the Bay I caught well over three hundred fish. I was of course out with a commercial fisherman and it was in his huge net.  Having said we know the story of Jonah I wonder if we know the challenging message that the prophet has to tell.

Children from every language and culture know the four words ‘tell me a story’ the fact that the book of Jonah is a narrative a story is what makes it memorable. It also makes it unique among the prophetic books of the Old Testament. The others are usually a set of oracles in poetic form with only small sections of narrative about the prophet’s life actions and even impact. But Jonah is the story of one complete episode from the ministry of the prophet.

The book of Jonah is one of the twelve or Minor Prophets in the Old Testament. When we use the word Minor it doesn’t mean less important rather it means smaller books as opposed to the longer books of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. At our Wednesday night study group I used this quote from a book called Turned On to illustrate that smaller does not mean less important.

Lord’s prayer: 66 words
Gettysburg address: 286 words
10 commandments: 179 words
Declaration of independence: 1 300 words
Pythagorean theorem: 24 words
Archimedes principle: 67 words
US government legislation about the sale of cabbage: 26,911 words

Mark Driscoll tells us that the Jews read the book each year at Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, when they remember their sins and after reading it their prayer of repentance is ‘we are Jonah”. This helps us to consider how we should look at this story as well. 

The big question we bring to the story with our twentieth century minds is did it really happen? We could go into some depth to look at the details and facts to satisfy our scientific mind set but if we focus on this we miss the meaning and the message. Yes there are some fantastic elements to the story, a storm that comes out of nowhere to buffet a boat carrying Jonah and calms down when he is thrown over the side, a great fish that swallows Jonah saving him from drowning, even more amazing perhaps is that a solo Hebrew prophet can cause such a great and important city like Ninevah, at this stage one of leading cities if not the capital of the Assyrian empire, to repent and mourn their misdeeds.  These may amaze us but none of these elements amaze Jonah in the story what is amazing to him, what is hard for him to comprehend and causes his anger is the great mercy and compassion of God, that God could show mercy even to Israel’s enemy in the way he does. What shocks him as he looks back and reflects on this is that he could have more concern and compassion for the demise of a plant than the possible destruction of a city of well over one hundred thousand people.

The opening two verses of the book set the scene for the whole story.

God calls his prophet Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh and to prophecy that it will fall in forty days. Jonah does not want to obey God’s call so he tries to run away... heading not to Nineveh in the east but as far west as he can.

The story told has two main characters, God and Jonah. Like all scripture God is the main character; it is first and foremost his story. YHWH, The LORD is the one who initiates the action; he is the one who is at work in the world and whose very character is at the centre of what happens in the narrative.

Jonah is a prophet called by God to be his messenger.  We know that he lived and ministered in the northern kingdom of Israel in the middle eighth century BC. Apart from this book that bares his name he is mentioned in 2Kings 14:25; where as a result of Jonah’s prophecy king Jeroboam II extends the borders of Israel. He is very much a nationalistic prophet in Israel. In contrast to this Amos and Hosea who were ministering at the same time in the Northern kingdom pointed out Israel’s injustices and idolatry.

We are presented with many different attributes of God in this book.

He is seen as the sovereign God. The word great appears 17 times in the book of Jonah. We have the great City of Nineveh, a great wind, a great storm, and YWYH Israel’s God is seen as being greater than all these things. He judges the City, in a reverse to Jesus calming the storm the wind and waves obey God by rising and raging at his command. By their reaction to the storm the sailors on the boat are aware that this storm is not a natural occurrence but of divine origin.  The wind and waves also quieten down at God’s command as well.  Even a giant fish in the deep sea is obedient to God and is the agent of his grace and rescue to the drowning Jonah. God is able to use the sailors drawing lots to point to Jonah as the one who is the cause of the boats problems.

We also see a just God. Seeing the great evildoing in the great city and bringing judgement. God is just in perusing Jonah, who is described in 2 kings as his servant, for his wilful disobedience. Maybe some might call this a vengeful and angry God.

But at the heart of the story is the fact that God is a compassionate and loving God. The LORD sends a fish to save Jonah from the deep. He calms the seas once the ships crew have thrown Jonah over the side. When they return to the shore they worship the LORD for saving them by offering up a sacrifice. 

Even God’s call to Jonah to go to Nineveh is an act of compassion. One of the difficulties with translating the scriptures from their original language is that the ambiguity of the Hebrew or Greek is not captured in English. The Hebrew word used to describe what was happening in the city of Nineveh that most translations render evildoing or wrongdoing can also mean difficulties. So what has caused God to send Jonah to Nineveh to warn them of coming judgement was not only the evildoing in the city but the difficulties they were going through as well.
Historians have found evidence of political weakness and instability in Nineveh at the beginning of the eight century BC. God’s warning of coming destruction galvanises the leadership and the people to repent from their evil ways. It causes the king to do something about the condition of his city to make some reforms and changes.

The other main character is Jonah. From beginning to end in this book we don’t get a very good picture of Jonah. He is a prophet who runs away from God. He is the only example of a prophet to do this in the Old Testament. Amos when questioned about why he keeps bugging the people of Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom says ‘when the LORD says prophecy, who can but prophecy’. Others like Jeremiah may have questioned their call or their ability but with God’s strength they went and did what God commanded but Jonah runs.

Why he ran is crucial to understanding Jonah.
IS it because he’s scared to do what God wants him to do? No.

Does he worry about getting a negative response from the people of Nineveh? No. In fact you get the idea that Jonah would have liked to be ignored by the people of the great city. He’s angry that they might responded to God’s word and repented. 

Is it that he did not know God well enough? No. He knows God’s sovereignty When he is confronted by the storm on the boat He proclaims himself to be one who serves the LORD who made heaven and earth.. He knows what God would have him do in that situation. Note it is Jonah who tells the crew to throw him overboard. They are reluctant to do it.  I even wonder if he through he could really get away from God. Maybe he just wanted to put it off long enough so that Nineveh wouldn’t have a chance to repent.

In Jonah chapter 4 verse 2 we finally hear Jonahs reason for running.  It is because of his knowledge of God’s compassion that he ran and is angry with God. He says he knew that God would be compassionate to Nineveh. In sending him to warn them he was giving Nineveh the chance to repent. God wanted to and does show compassion on Israel’s worst enemy that. Jonah is fiercely nationalistic; he had been used by God to improve Israel’s position in the world but can he let God show love to Israel’s enemies? NO

He says “no” to a compassionate God.  Even as he goes and does what God has asked him he continually says No to a compassionate God. He is unable to rejoice that the people of Nineveh while not turning to worship the LORD have repented of their evildoings and so have been speared. He’s angry with God.

In this story I can’t help but hear the word’s of Jesus ‘love your enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you or Paul’s summery of Jesus teaching in Romans twelve ‘Do not return evil for evil but overcome evil with good.’ I cannot help but hear the assertion of the gospel from the first letter John while we were God’s enemies he sent his son Jesus Christ into the world to pay the price for all we had done wrong.

The question this book has for us is, How are we saying 'no' to God’s compassion. How do we limit it? We maybe made in God’s image but I wonder if we don’t also carry around a picture of God made in our image. That God loves the people who are acceptable to us. That are like us and that God is not compassionate and loving to those who are outside our group or our picture of who is acceptable. How do we respond to the call of our loving and compassionate God to go beyond our boundaries and borders with his love? The call to love our enemies, to love all people and tell them of his love? Yet it’s as we stretch ourselves to go beyond our boundaries we will encounter more profoundly more fully God’s compassion.   

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Pentecost Prayer

A prayer of thanksgiving and confession at Pentecost

Father God,

There is so much that we want to thank you for

You are a wonderful God

Great and mighty

Unchanging, unflappable

Quick to bless and slow to anger

Full of mercy and grace

Just in all your ways

Eternal and almighty

Yet so close and the lover of our souls 

We thank you for the every day things

That make life so rich and full

Sea and hill, day and night

Fine weather and storm

For home and all you provide

For the joy of children and grand children

The love of parents and grand parents

The caring contact of friends when we feel so alone

For solitude and times of peace in the midst of the hustle and bustle

For your abiding presence in the ebbs and flows of our lives

We thank you in particular for the Holy Spirit

Jesus came and showed us what you are like O Father

He is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit

Died that we might have our sins forgiven

And rose that we might have new life

Then just as you promised you sent us your spirit

One like Jesus, so we would not be alone

A guide and councillor, a comforter and friend,

To show us the truth and our need for God

To give us the power we need to live for you

And to witness to Jesus in our world close at hand and in far off land

Thank you God’s Holy Spirit

That you fill us with your presence

That you open scripture to us

That you give us a peace and joy that the world cannot take away

That you grow Christ like fruit in our lives

That you give us gifts to serve one another and proclaim the gospel with power

Lord God it is because you shine your light in our lives that we know we have sinned and are in need of your forgiveness

You spirit shows them to us and calls us to repent

So we would pray that you forgive us for what we have done wrong

For not always putting your kingdom first in our lives

Seeking our own ways rather than yours 

For not loving others as you have loved us

For leaving undone the good you call us to do

Forgive us O Lord

Thank you for the wonderful truth that as we have confessed our sins

You are faithful and just and forgive us our sins

We are free and you call us to go and sin mo more

Fill us a fresh with your spirit

Blow O wind of God through our lives

Touch us afresh with tongues as of fire

That we may know the risen  Jesus and make him known

That we may be witnesses in power to Jesus Christ our Lord and saviour

Revive us your church, to be your spirited people

To the glory of God

Father, Son and Holy Spirit


Monday, June 13, 2011

True Grit 1969... but mainly 2010 (A Belated Review)

I did not see the Coen Brother's 'True Grit' when it came out in cinemas. I had recently re watched the old 1969 John Wayne classic, directed by Henry Hathaway and wondered 'how could someone improve on or even want to go near such a classic movie. However on  a Sunday afternoon I had some ironing to do so decided, as 'True grit (2010) had come out that weekend on DVD, that I would watch the "remake".

I can understand what attracted the Coen's to this story. The characters of Rooster Gogburn and Mattie Ross are captivating, the dialogue (obviously stemming from Charles Portis' 1968 novel of the same name)is captivating and particularly the Coen's attempt to capture the archaic flavour of speech is most endearing. The story line itself with very memorable scenes and interactions between superbly written (and in both cases acted) characters.

I had wondered how Jeff Bridges would get away with playing a role that had come to epitomise the western anti-hero and had won John Wayne his sole best actor Oscar. The answer was while in the 1969 movie Rooster Cogburn was portrayed as a rather beat up John Wayne (as i must say most of John Wayne's roles were) Bridges shows his ability to be a versatile character actor. Although my daughters did suggest that they had only seen him play down and outs. It was easy to simply forget the Wayne portrayal and find bridges a very believable Cogburn. Matt Damon put aside all his natural charm to do a great job of bringing Texas Ranger  Laboeuf to life. In the 1969 Movie Glen Campbell played the role and once again like Wayne's Cogburn, Campbell's Laboeuf was more a reflection of Campbell than the character. the fact that my daughters (avoid "Bourne") fans had to rewind the movie to actually realise that the Character was played by Matt Damon  was credit to his acting abilities.

Mattie Ross was played excellently in both movies by young actresses who did not in anyway seem out of place in what are stellar casts. They just like the character did more than hold their own and displayed their true grit.

The Coen's story telling was less linear than Hathaway's. Choosing to start the movie with Mattie Ross arriving in Fort Smith, with the plot being established through a Mattie Ross voice over, where as in the 1969 movie we are introduced to Mattie's character through interaction with her father as he leaves on his ill fated trip with the villainous Tom Chaney. Likewise (and not wishing to spoil the end for people who have not seen it) the Coen's choose to use voice over for an ending that is less Hollywood than Hathaway's 1969 version. Both portray the bond that has developed between Cogburn and Ross and the way their encounter and adventures have shaped their lives. The 1969 movie left you with hope of a continuing family connection. The 2010 movie was 'grittier' but still full of kindness.

I had been told by a facebook acquaintance that true Grit was not a remake. In someways it is, but I would say that it is more a re telling and a remediation of the story with twenty first century aesthetics. A gritter portrayal of the western world, rather than the somewhat stylised west of earlier times. The characters are allowed to be more broken and open. The unforgettable scenes from both movies are there the interplay of characters and developing sense of family are there. The Coen's Mattie Ross is left carrying the scars of that encounter.

The tale is both suspenseful and delightful, hard and humorous. My daughters (18 and 13) were captivated by the film and I got my ironing done.

I guess what moved me in the end of the movie was the way in which the Cogburn character  who had been dealt a hard hand in his life and was known for his ferocity and violence showed love and compassion for Mattie, in such a heroic way.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Holy Spirit: A Pentecost Reality Not A Wild Goose Chase

One of the amazing birds that comes to our New Zealand shores  is the Godwit. The Godwit makes the world’s longest non-stop migration to get here. It comes from Siberia and flies down the Alaskan coast and over the pacific to our shores to breed and then in autumn it will reverse the journey to feed in the Artic summer.

When we were in Dunedin we went out to see the Royal Albatrosses at Tareri heads. Being na├»ve northerners we didn’t realise just how expensive it was. So we ended up sitting in the car park content to gaze out over the panorama of the Otago harbour and the wild coastline. But this albatross graced us by circling round and round over the car park for about twenty minutes never having to flap its wings just gliding and soaring on the cold wind that howls in from the southern ocean, An amazing sight. These birds spend most of their lives on the wind currents over the ocean. Then they find their way home to this same small point of land to breed.

Ancient Celtic Christians of Ireland and Scotland used the wild goose as one of their images for the Holy Spirit. The wild goose is much like our Albatrosses and Godwits a wanderer on the wind, a migratory bird. Susan Leo pastor of the Bridgeport Uniting Church describes her childhood memories of the wild geese like this

"First you hear it: The faraway honking of geese in flight. Relentless honking, as if to clear the sky ahead of errant sparrows and stray robins, lest they be ploughed over by the oncoming steamroll of birds; ceaselessly honking avian encouragements to ‘press on!’ to a destination I would never know.
Then from the north, the vee of birds comes surging into sight high above the buckeye trees: the lead goose, breaking the air and setting the pace, then dropping back as another, then another, leads the way through the ocean of sky.
And then on those evenings when the air is really still, comes the sound of wings: a distant relentless churning of air, mocking gravity’s pull on sleek heavy bodies coursing to their winter home."

While not a biblical image for the Holy Spirit these Bird’s encapsulated what these wandering Celtic people experienced of the Holy Spirit. Not the quite calm stay at home dove but the loud adventurous birds that would leave their shores each year and return again to and from they did not know where.  It picked up for them the Spirit at Pentecost being a strong wind that shock the place where people meet and Jesus some what mystical words to Nicodemus in John 3: 8 ‘the wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear it’s sound but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going so it is with everyone born of the spirit”.  I can’t help but wonder this Pentecost if we haven’t tried to tame the wild goose: to domesticate the Holy Spirit.

We domesticate the Holy Spirit when we say that the Holy Spirit is only for some people and not for others, like it was an optional extra on a luxury car. In the narrative of the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2, the third person of our triune God, falls on and fills all the believers.

IN Acts chapter 1 the disciples had been told by Jesus to wait in Jerusalem until they received God’s power and he would then send them out to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria and to the ends of the world. They waited by meeting together for prayer and fellowship. The on Pentecost, the Jewish festival for harvest time and new wine, the spirit of God descends on them as they are gathered in the upper room.

What was new about this event was not that the Spirit of God came and filled human beings in the Old Testament God’s spirit was given to specific people for specific tasks. But now at Pentecost we see that all the believers are filled with the spirit. Just like in this image of a candle lit vigil the spirit manifested itself as tongues of fire and descended on all who were present. Not just the twelve, all the believers and they started speaking in different languages and praising God.

As Peter explained to the crowd who had come because of the physical manifestations that accompanied it, this was what God had foretold through the prophet Joel. That in the end days God would pour out his spirit on all his people regardless of gender, age or social standing. I could pray for young Samuel to be filled with God’s Holy Spirit at his baptism this morning we can pray for God to fill us all and he will and does. The more wrinkles the more room there is to expand to accommodate the Spirit's presence.

We can try and domesticate the Holy Spirit when we have a concept of being church where the minister is given some special anointing and gifts to do God’s work and everybody is there just to support them. In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul explains the Holy Spirit to a group who were also trying to tame the holy spirit by saying that only their particular group in the church had the spirit and he used a metaphor we have become over familiar with. He called the church the body of Christ. We are happy to see that we all have a place to belong to and we all belong to the church, but Paul also says that the spirit has given us gifts to minister to one another and to achieve the work of the body of Christ which of course is the embodiment of Jesus Christ in the world around us. There are several lists of these gifts in scripture. They range from prophecy and apostles through to gifts of mercy, and helps even administration and generosity are Holy Spirit gifts. I’m ordained to the ministry of word and sacrament which means that my role within the church is to preach and teach so that we as the body may be built up to so that you may be equipped to do the things God has called you to do. It’s one part amongst the many the spirit has given to the church. The spirit gives all of us gifts to function as a body. I believe that baptism is our ordination. We are called and set aside at baptism to witness to Jesus Christ and the wild thing is that the Holy Spirit gives us all gifts and enables and empowers us all to do it.

Now in classical Pentecostal circles there used to be and still are in some places the belief that to be filled with the Holy Spirit you need to speak in tongues. That’s wrong and I’m sorry that has made a lot of saintly people feel like second-class citizens.  It was one of the damaging excesses of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements because instead of promoting unity in the Spirit it caused elitism and disunity. When you read the passage in acts 2 you see that Joel’s prophecy was that all people would prophecy. Not speak in tongues. To prophecy is to tell forth God’s word speaking it out, not to fore tell events. We are all empowered to speak what God puts on our hearts. I speak in tongues I’m not anti tongues but it is only one way God chooses to speak through His people. As Paul says he speaks in tongues more than anyone else but he would rather say one or two words that people understood than a thousand they didn’t. At Pentecost the manifestation of tongues was prophetic it showed that the good news of Jesus Christ was for all people from every tribe and tongue. It foretold the fact that the good news of Jesus Christ would be preached in all the world’s languages. But it wasn’t the only gift God gives to his people by the Holy Spirit.

The other misconception about the Holy Spirit not being for all believers is that all this Holy Spirit stuff was for the first generation of the church, to go back to the motor vehicle analogy it gave a kick start but in the quote from Acts 2 we used in the baptism this morning the promise of God’s spirit was not only for those who believed but for their children as well. That is a Jewish way of saying for succeeding generations. Generation after generation.

We also try to domesticate the Holy Spirit when don’t realise that the Spirits purpose is to testify to Jesus Christ. We often see Pentecost as the birthday of the church but really it is the birthday of a mission movement, of a witnessing community not an institution. We domesticate the Holy Spirit when we don’t realise that the spirit will push us out towards the people Jesus loves in this world. In Acts chapter 2 the disciples had been meeting in the upper room, it was a closed shop they focused on their own agenda. In chapter one they prayed together but they also decided to replace Judas as one of the twelve. Internal structural stuff but the spirit come on them and they are propelled out of the upper room and Peter addresses a holiday crowd of well over three thousand people with boldness he declares the good news of Jesus Christ. He calls people to repent and believe.

In the Old Testament there is a bird image of God as a mother eagle pushing her children out of the nest and off the high cliffs they live on to teach them to fly and as they plummet to the ground the mother eagle swoops down to pick them up before they hit the rocks below and carry them back to the nest only to do it again and again until they learn to fly. (New Zeaalnd Poet James K Baxter uses the image of the mother eagle for the Holy Spirit in his poem 'The Song Of The Holy Spirit ) Throughout the book of acts we can see a pattern of the Holy Spirit pushing the Christians out of their nest. Through persecution they are pushed out of Jerusalem and share the good news with other towns in Judea. In Acts 10 the Holy Spirit pushes Peter out of the Jewish nest to the gentile Cornelius’s house. The Spirit pushes Paul across the Aegean sea to Macedonia. Down through history when Christians have become inward focused and thinking its all about what happens in here, the spirit has stirred people up to follow the wild goose out to the people and world that God loves.

We can domesticate the Holy Spirit when we think it is simply for someone else and not for me. So let me ask have you had your Pentecost and allowed the spirit to come and roost in your lives, empowering you. Maybe you are still in Acts chapter 1 and just waiting or you are worried that the Spirit is too wild, you’ve been put off. But we know enough of God’s character to know that while God is not tame, God is Good. Remember the biblical image of the Spirit is the dove.  The wild thing is that God will fill us with his holy spirit if we ask him to. Its a promise he made through the prophet Joel. In Luke 11:11-13 Jesus says

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

Maybe the spirit is calling you to take flight today. What are the dreams that God is giving you. The visions he has instilled in your hearts. What are the words and the actions that the spirit has placed in you to speak to the world of Christ? We often talk about a wild goose chase as an act of futility, like we talk about chasing the wind. Yet As Christians it’s not futile the Spirit of God wants to be found in us wants us to catch hold of what he wants us to do and calls us to follow him for the sake of the world that God loves.

Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn responds to that call like this:

I’m too old for the term but I’ll use it any way

I’ll be a child of the wind till the end of my days.