Sunday, September 24, 2017

The God We Seek and Reject

The God We Seek and Reject
A Sermon by Brent J. Eelman 
September 24, 2017 
Wyoming Valley Presbyterian Church

Jonah 3:1-5, 10, 4:1–2  
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ 3So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ 5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.

I wish I could preach like Jonah! I wish I could preach like that!   His sermon was only 8 words long.  ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’  Only 8 words and the whole city of 120,000 repents!   The people heard those 8 words and they believed!  That’s preaching! 
They didn’t greet him at the gates to the city following his message saying, “Good Sermon! Jonah!”  
No one commented “We needed to hear that.”  No….  The whole city believed. Everyone… Great and small!  This was not a passive, “I believe….”  No  they repented and actually changed their ways.  A preacher’s dream!  Not 1, not 2 but 120,000!  In sack cloth and ashes! 
Lest we try and minimize this event, this was Ninevah: “the evil city of Ninevah”!  These were the sworn enemies of the Hebrew people.  These were the people who treated the Hebrews and everyone else harshly.  They were feared and hated. 
Eight words:  “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”  I wish I could preach like that.   My stewardship sermon would be only 4 words: “God says ‘give more,’” and we would oversubscribe the budget!  
You would think that Jonah would be pleased.  You would think that Jonah would be ebullient.  But no.  He has a snit: a hissy fit.  We read, “This was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.”  Why?  Why?  That is what my message is about.  You see, the book of Jonah is not merely about Jonah. It is not merely about the fish (or whale).  It is not merely about Nineveh. 
·      It is a story of God calling, and people resisting. 
·      It is a story of judgment and prophesy. 
·      It is a story of repentance and salvation. 
·      But most of all it is about God. 
·      It is all about the very nature of God: the God that Jonah welcomed and the God that Jonah rejected.  
·      It is about our God:  the God we welcome, and the God we reject.
We know that Jonah did not want to go to Ninevah.  Why?  Probably because Ninevah represented the enemy that Israel and Judah most feared, the Assyrians.  And so Jonah “high tailed it” in the other direction.  He ran away from his calling.  He ran away from God and he ended up in the belly of a great fish.  This is the lesson we learned in Sunday School.  If you run away from God… you are going to end up in a nasty place.  What did he do in the belly of the fish?  What do we do when we find ourselves in a mess.  We pray.  
Jonah prayed to the very God he was fleeing.  His prayer reads like a psalm. 
‘I called to the Lord out of my distress,
   and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
   and you heard my voice.

Jonah prayed to God in the midst of this crisis.  His prayer ended with the words, “Deliverance belongs to the Lord.”  
  • ·      God ultimately saves us from the messes that we create. 
  • ·      God reaches out to us even when we are disobedient. 
  • ·      God hears our cries for help.
  • ·      God loves us and cares for us.  
  • ·      God frees us from the bowels of hell.. from the belly of the beast.  
Jonah’s prayer indicated that he knew God, not merely as a God of judgment, but also as God of grace and forgiveness: a God who would change his mind out love and mercy. 
·      This is the God who is revealed to us in the life of Jesus Christ.  
·      This is God of whom we sing, “Amazing Grace… that saved a wretch like me.” 
·      This is the God we declare in the assurance of forgiveness… a God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”  
We welcome this God into our lives, knowing that we are sinners, knowing that we are disobedient, knowing that we, like Jonah, run away from our calling.   We welcome this God into our lives, because it is by the mercy and love of God we are saved 
The God we welcome is a God of “second chances.”  Jonah was given a second chance! We read, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time…..”   The story “reboots” after the fish incident and begins again.  
Jonah went to Nineveh and preached… 8 words and the entire city repented.  And Jonah?  He is upset. 
Why was he upset?  Because God had mercy on the people of Nineveh.  God changed his mind. Do you see the irony?  When Jonah was in the fish, he welcomed the grace and forgiveness of God into his life.  But he was angry with the same God because he wanted to see the city of Nineveh destroyed.  Jonah was hoping that God would destroy them because they were the brutal enemy of the Hebrew people.  Jonah welcomed this gracious forgiving love into his own life, but did not want God’s grace and forgiveness to extend to those he hated.  
Suddenly we understand Jonah’s unwillingness to go to Nineveh.  Jonah was afraid that the people might actually listen. And if they repented, God would spare them.  In the midst of his snit, Jonah cried out to God, “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning, for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing”  
All of us experience shadenfreude.  It is that perverse joy we take in the misfortune of others.  It is that feeling of satisfaction that occurs when we are driving and a car speeds by us going 25 miles over the speed limit. Then a mile down the road we see it pulled over and the cop is writing a ticket.  Schadenfreude is especially prevealent when we have been wronged by others, and the Hebrew people were brutally victimized by the people of Nineveh.  
“God will get you.”  That is what we want to believe.  We want to believe that “What goes around, comes around.”  We have borrowed from the hindu religion the idea of retribution built into the order of things. 
“Karma, Baby”, we cry.  “You will get yours.”  
  • ·      Karma is the opposite of grace. 
  • ·      Christian faith, based upon the grace of God is the negation of Karma.  
  • ·      The love revealed in Jesus Christ has no room for any concept of Karma. 
  • ·      Karma is the opposite of the God revealed in the scriptures.    
“God will get you..”  I suspect that God does… but often God gets us and others,
  • ·      not with anger,
  • ·      but with grace.
  • ·      Not with judgment,
  • ·      But with love.
  • ·      Not with destruction,
  • ·      But with forgiveness and salvation
Though we may welcome this gracious and loving God into our lives… we often reject him for those we dislike… For them we want a God of judgment and wrath. 
Sermons need to be applied to our lives. This is the rub: I have been here a number of times, but I don’t know you well.  I don’t know your secret sins. But I know me, and if I may beg your indulgence, let me share my personal struggle with the story of Jonah.  Perhaps you have a similar struggle.  
Often when we want to avoid something important in our lives, our dreams will remind us that we need to deal with it.  I have two recurring dreams in my life.  If you are wondering what a pastor dreams, they are theological.  In both dreams I am standing before the “pearly gates”.  
The first is a dream of judgment.  I am in a room with a book keeper/ accountant type person.  There is a computer printout on the desk between us.  On that printout is a listing of all the sins that I have committed.  The book keeper is going through each of the sins that I have committed during my life time, asking me to account for them.  (it is a pretty thick printout).  Finally, after a period of time, I cry out… “Wait a minute… what about grace and forgiveness?”  The accountant looks up from his desk and states matter of factly, “We went off that system a while ago…. We are computerized now.”   
Whenever this dream occurs, I usually wake up in an anxious sweat.  I, like Jonah, like you and the rest of humanity am dependent upon the grace of God.  The God I have welcomed into my life, the God I know in Jesus Christ, is a God who does not list my sins… but in the words of Jonah, is“a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”  
In the second dream, I have made it past the divine judgment and am about to get my introductory tour of heaven.  But the one who greets me and shows me around paradise is an adolescent boy.  I recognize him right away.  He is the bully, John Simmons, who made my first year of Jr. High a living hell.  He is the one who was a symbol for the pain I have experienced.  He is my Nineveh, and darn it… he got their first!  Why? Because God is gracious and merciful… slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  God forgives the people of Nineveh… and he forgives John Simmons.  
This is the struggle of following Jesus Christ.  The God of Jesus is one of love, grace, and forgiveness.  Indeed a God of Second chances.  Following Jesus calls us to embrace the ethic he taught:
  • ·               if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;
  • ·               if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well;
  • ·      if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
  • ·      ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies (the people of Nineveh) and pray for those who persecute you.

The story of Jonah challenges us to look at our lives, and name our Ninevehs.  It challenges us with the declaration that the mercy, love, grace and forgiveness of God extends to them also…  It challenges us to embody this same mercy, love, grace and forgiveness in our lives.    
The story of Jonah is a “whale of a tale”… and if you can forgive the pun… hard to swallow…. But it is good news… not only for us… but for all the Ninevehs in God’s creation.  Amen. 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Grant Us Wisdom for the Living of These Days

Grant Us Wisdom for the Living of These Days
A Sermon by Brent J. Eelman
First Presbyterian Church, Clarks Summit
September 17, 2017

I Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14
Then David slept with his ancestors, and was buried in the city of David. The time that David reigned over Israel was forty years; he reigned for seven years in Hebron, and thirty-three years in Jerusalem. So Solomon sat on the throne of his father David; and his kingdom was firmly established.

Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places. The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt-offerings on that altar. At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, ‘Ask what I should give you.’ And Solomon said, ‘You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart towards you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?’

It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, ‘Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.’ 

When I was in the seventh grade, the game show, “Let’s Make a Deal” first appeared on television.  The premise of the show was to play on people’s greed and their willingness to take a chance.  The host, Monty Hall, would give them something tangible (like a thirty-year supply of laundry detergent) and then say, “Would you be willing to trade that for what is behind door # 1.”   I am afraid that this show skewed my early Sunday School interpretations of the bible stories, particularly the gift of wisdom to Solomon.  

In my junior high imagination, I envisioned God as this almighty gameshow host.  He gave Solomon wisdom and then asked him, “Do you want to trade that wisdom for what is behind door # 2?”   Solomon hesitates for a moment and then there is the sweetening of the pot. The door opens just a bit and the bright and shiny gold and jewels are seen. 

“Are you sure?”  

Solomon resists the temptation, and tells God, “I will hang on to wisdom.”   

Then God, so impressed with Solomon’s decision says:  “Congratulations!  You also get what is behind door #2.”   Solomon smiles, keeps his wisdom and also gets rich.  

What was the lesson that I took from the story?  Stick with wisdom, because you might get both. 

This is truly an educator’s story.  Our youth and young adults go off to school to learn.  There they make choices.  Often those choices are for specific skills that might be useful in a career: Accounting, business courses, computer science, and other classes that will help them find gainful employment.  Or they might choose some of the more esoteric courses that cause one to think and ponder the meaning of life, the nature of creation, and the essence of good and evil.  These are courses in Philosophy, the Arts, Music, and Literature.  What is the right choice?  What gifts, skills, and abilities do we need to live, survive, and thrive in this fantastic, yet frightening, world? 

In our search for life-skills that will lead to a fulfilling and purposeful life, Solomon’s story can inform ours.  The writer of the first Book of Kings wanted to impress upon his readers that we make choices about how we govern our lives.  Those choices are between those things we value and those we regard as secondary and even trivial. This morning, I want to use this story of Solomon’s decision for wisdom to understand our contemporary context and the choices that we make.  Since this is an “educator’s story”,  3 R’s:  rejection, resources, and response.   1.  The rejection of wisdom. 2.  Resources for living.  3.  Responding to the challenge. 
The rejection of wisdom: The story of Solomon’s decision for wisdom is often pulled out of context, keeping us from an honest understanding of him.  There is a theological tension in the 3rd verse of our text.  “Solomon loved the Lord… only he pursued the idols of the high places.  

Solomon did not initially pursue wisdom, or for that matter governing in a manner that was faithful to God.  (Read the story.)  First, he consolidated his reign in a bloody manner that included deception, intrigue and fratricide. Then he cut a deal with Pharaoh and developed an alliance with Egypt so that he could marry Pharaoh’s daughter.  Then he decided to build a glorious house for himself and his new bride.  Yes, Solomon is credited with building the first Temple, but he took care of # 1 first. But the most obvious example of his initial rejection of God was that he also allowed and participated in the offering of sacrifices in the “high places.”  This is biblical shorthand for sacrifices to idols.  And it is where this narrative begins. 

Solomon went up to the “high places” to offer a sacrifice, (no mention of God).  Ironically, it was then that he was confronted by God in a dream and was asked, “what do you need from me?”
Dreams are powerful moments in our lives, because that is when our ego loses control.  We often confront our true selves when our defenses are asleep.  The medieval mystics called this “the dark night of the soul.”   These dark nights can be terrifying and upsetting.  But they also contain a promise or gift, because God is often in the midst of them, inviting us to confront our own shortcomings and weaknesses; our sin.  

What did Solomon, the great king of Israel declare?  “I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.”  (Not becoming of a powerful monarch, but honest!)  This was the moment when Solomon asked for wisdom; a moment when he was honest about himself.  He had been king for a while, things were settled and secure, but inside he was frightened and overwhelmed.  “Grant me wisdom, for the living of this day.”
Consider our contemporary world.  There is an arrogance that typifies our age.  We all believe that we are right and others are wrong.  We have replaced reality with image, and consequently we struggle to discern what is true, what is real, and what is important.   We seldom reflect on how we think, what we value, and how we make life choices.  

We don’t value wisdom.  

Abraham Heschel wrote: 
“We prepare the pupil for employment, for holding a job. We do not teach him how to be a person, how to resist conformity, how to grow inwardly, how to say no to his own self.  We teach him how to adjust to the public; we do not teach him how to cultivate privacy.  We tell the pupil many things, but what has our instruction to do with his inner problems, with the way he is going to behave or think outside the classroom?  In our classroom, we shy away from fundamental issues.  How should one deal with evil?  What shall one do with envy?  What is the meaning of honesty?  How should one face the problem of loneliness? What has religion to say about war and violence?  About indifference and evil?”  (The Wisdom of Heschel, pp 96 & 97).  

The problem of our age is poverty and it is rampant.  It is not only an economic poverty, it is a poverty of wisdom.  We go to the “high places” and make our sacrifices to the gods of economy, power, security, pleasure, and things. But we ignore the need for the wisdom to understand our world, the purpose of life and God’s claim upon us.  Perhaps our current cultural crisis, (our rejection of wisdom) is our “dark night of the soul”. 
Resources for living:  Solomon was overwhelmed with his situation and was struggling with resources for ruling Israel. In the midst of this struggle, in the dark night of his soul, surrounded by idols, incense, and sacrifices, Solomon came face to face with himself and with God.  The first thing that he needed as a leader, a king, a human being was wisdom: the first thing.  Everything else would follow. 
Our age cries out for wisdom.  We have amazing technology, yet we are overwhelmed by it.  Technology is not neutral.  The great theologian of culture, Jacque Ellul, pointed this out in his many books on the subject.  We are seduced by technology, believing that we control it, until we realize, (often too late), that it is controlling us:
·       controlling how we think, how we respond,
·       how we live.  (smart phones.. making us stupid…) 
·       We know how to create smartphones and IPads, but we don’t struggle with what it means to be a human being in a world of tablets and information. 
·       We live in “the information age” where we produce information by the ton, truth by the ounce and wisdom by the gram.
·       We are so busy pecking away on our phones and tablets, that lack the wisdom to understand what it means to be creature of God, made in God’s image, and thus capable of creating. 

We are inundated with information, but we lack the wisdom to discern truth and are tossed around by rumor, half-truths, and illusions.   

The gift that God offers us is wisdom.  But wisdom is acquired not through a textbook, not through a workshop, not in a class, nor by watching a video.  Wisdom is cultivated within the soul.  It is nurtured in the struggles of the heart: the struggles for dignity, purpose and meaning.  Wisdom is contained in our stories, our legends, and our myths.   It is in our music and our art.  It is in our poetry and the things of beauty.  Wisdom is in our tears and our laughter. It is nurtured in soil of the soul’s struggle.   

The New Testament text from Mark that I read follows Jesus temptations in the wilderness.  He taught in his hometown and people marveled, “What is the wisdom that has been given to him?”  That wisdom was given by God during his time in the wilderness where he struggled with doubt, temptation, and privation. It was nurtured in the struggles of the soul.  

Our technocratic worldview protests that all this wisdom talk is “blah blah blah….” useless babble for people who don’t live in the real world.”  Wisdom seems so impractical and useless. 

We want it in a plan, or technique.  A mission statement. A 7-step outline for happy living.  A practical bible if you will. “Tell me what to do… don’t ask me to think.”  

One of the special joys of pastoral ministry is teaching the confirmation class.  It was a most amazing experience for me because I discovered smart and curious young adults who were eager to find themselves in the world…but they were hungry. Hungry for wisdom to understand who they were, why they were created, and what they were supposed to do with their lives.  They wanted all the things that our world could give, but when I listened to them, they wanted more.  They hungered for something that would enable them to make sense of life.  They wanted to understand the nature of temptation and how to resist.  They wanted to know about the meaning of life, but also the reality of death.  They wanted to know about the nature of evil and how to combat it. In short, they hungered for the wisdom that God offers, and I believe it is primary.  

It is first.

We need to give our children more, and we need more.  I truly believe that we have chased the false gods of the “high places” and are now in the dark night of our collective soul.  But there is good news.  Like the story of Solomon in the high places, our forgiving and loving God confronts us in our darkness and asks, “What do you need?”
Response:  We need wisdom.  And we need to make it first in our lives.  The good news of the Bible is that Solomon ultimately chose wisdom … and everything followed. 
How can we choose wisdom?  
·       Allow yourself to struggle with the hard choices of life. 
·       Spend time thinking about how you think. 
·       Listen to the words and the rhythms of the great poets.
·       Spend time with the music of the masters.
·       Read the prayers of the saints, the holy women and men from history.  Meditate on their prayers and pray with them.
·       Reflect on your own life, both the good and less than good.  When have you experienced grace?  Who have been your guides and your mentors in life and in faith. 
·       Spend time with your doubts. Wrestle with them, for they to are a gift. 
·       Marvel at creation.    

Our contemporary challenge is also a choice.  What do we choose first?  Will we continue to give lip service and a nodding ascent to wisdom while we pursue the folly of our own wishes and wants?   Or will our prayer be: “Grant us wisdom for the facing of these days.”   Amen.