Sunday, January 28, 2024

Who knows? What we can learn from ancient Nineveh

 Jonah 3:1 10

1 Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: 2 "Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you."

3 Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very important city   a visit required three days. 4On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned."

5 The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. 6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. 7Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh: "By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. 8But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. 

"9    Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish."

10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.

Jonah visited Nineveh during the glory days of the Assyrian empire. From about 885 to 625 BC, the Assyrians dominated the ancient world. As early as 841 BC, Jehu, King of Israel, was forced to pay tribute to the Assyrian ruler, Shalmaneser III. This kind of harassment continued for over a century. Then Assyria brutally conquered Israel in 722 BC.

God called Jonah to go to the heartland of his people’s worst enemy. It was a radical order which would have taxed the obedience of any prophet.

Once there, Jonah goes straight to work. He doesn't look for the local Holiday Inn to drop off his luggage. He doesn't buy a paper to check up on the local news. He doesn't request an audience with the king. He shows no interest in the power structure of the city. He just marches in and for three days he shouts to the Ninevites that their time is limited. Whatever the Assyrians may have thought about him, Jonah got their attention.

Jonah foretells gloom and doom, death and destruction. His voice is not one of woe, but of triumph. Nineveh, the capital of Jonah’s hated enemy, will be overthrown. This is a good deal! These pillaging, plundering and looting Assyrians are finally going to get what’s coming to them, and it’s about time, too!

Jonah is a man of judgment, certitude and certainty. In Jonah’s world there are actions and consequences. This is how things are. No wriggle room, that’s Jonah. How can we argue with that idea? It’s true, isn’t it? if you work hard, you get ahead. If you make good grades, you get into a good college. If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. Actions have consequences.

In fact, the promises God are often found in scripture phrased in “if-then” terms. In Deuteronomy we read, “If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of earth. However, if you do not fully obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands, all these curses will come upon you.”

At the beginning of the story, Jonah learns that the wickedness of the Ninevites has come before God. Jonah pronounces doom for the Ninevites, but he never tells them why they deserve it. Presumably, the Ninevites understood why an Israelite and an Israelite’s God would condemn them. There is no word of grace in Jonah’s proclamation. Throughout scripture and in our own experience of knowing God, God’s grace is always pre-eminent. It is prevenient, to use the Wesleyan term. God’s grace always goes before his messengers and prepares the receivers of the message to hear it. As things turned out, Jonah’s imperfect prophecy didn’t prevent the Holy Spirit’s work. The Ninevites were convicted of their wickedness by Jonah’s warning. The whole city repented and was spared.

Despite Jonah’s imperfections, we need people like him. It’s far too easy to become morally, economically, culturally and religiously lazy, even wicked. Especially when things are going pretty good, as they were for the Ninevites then and are for most Americans right now. I am pro-prosperity. I see no inherent moral virtue in poverty. We have nice homes, good schools, good jobs, nice clothes and a high standard of living. These are good things. We have a good life. I don’t mean they are good in some sort of double talking, theologically wisecracking sort of way. I mean genuinely, truly good. But how easy it is to be seduced by the siren song of secular success and forget whence comes our wealth and good life. It’s all on loan from God.

One of the richest persons in the Bible realized this. When Job lost all his wealth, he honestly acknowledged, “I came naked from my mother’s womb, I will leave this world naked. The Lord gives, the Lord takes away. May the name of the Lord be praised.” The Bible is clear about who gives us what we have. Deuteronomy records God’s admonition to the Hebrews in chapter 8. I’m going to slightly—but only slightly—paraphrase it:

Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to keep his commands. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, when your companies grow large and your stock holdings increase and all your stock investments beat the S&P 500, your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God and you may say to yourself, “My power and knowledge have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is God who gives you the ability to produce wealth. If you ever forget the Lord your God and follow other gods and bow down to them and worship them, you will surely be destroyed.

We are the wealthiest nation ever to exist. Stupendously endowed with enormous natural resources, fresh water and fantastically productive soil, we have formulated an economic and political system unmatched in all history for material production and comfort. Are we blessed by God? You bet! Yet I fear that as a nation we say, “Our power and knowledge have produced this wealth for us.”

A few years ago survey by the Barna Group discovered that almost two-thirds of Americans agreed that the purpose of life was enjoyment and personal fulfillment and that each person’s responsibility is to oneself. Robert Wuthnow wrote in his book, God and Mammon in America, that Americans are, as a culture, spiritually adrift in making decisions in economics, career choice, workplace commitment, consumerism and charity. Those who described themselves as committed churchgoers often said they had their materialistic and workaholic tendencies reinforced by their religious beliefs and faith training. They live, they admitted, “pretty much the same as those who have no faith at all.”

In his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. lamented, “The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent, or often vocal, sanction of things as they are.”

It is sometimes a Christian’s responsibility to stride like Jonah into the hearts of our cities and the boardrooms of the powerful and proclaim, “You are forgetting the Lord your God and are following secular idols like consumerism, perverse entertainment and secular pride. You worship and bow down to them, but the Lord gives and the Lord takes away.” Jesus said judgment comes to those who store up things for themselves but are not rich toward God. Life is more than good food and the body, more than fine clothes.

The Ninevites believed what Jonah told them. From king to pauper, they repented and called upon God. They gave up their evil ways and violence. “Who knows?” they declared. “God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” When God saw they had turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not destroy them.

Now how can that be? God went to a lot of trouble to get Jonah to the Ninevites and now they are spared? Just because of a little sackcloth and ashes and fasting? What’s the deal? Actions, consequences, right? Not here! The dirty, rotten Assyrians beat the rap on a technicality. Jonah sulked and left town.

Well, not so fast. The Assyrians were never ones for small gestures. Their army’s effectiveness would have made William Tecumseh Sherman green with envy. Nineveh was the largest city in the world at the time, almost sixty miles around. Its walls were so thick that three chariots could be driven abreast on top. Fifteen hundred watchtowers were set along the wall, each tower two hundred feet high—oh, yes, the Assyrians made big plans and did things in a grand way.

So it’s no surprise they went for big-time repentance. Their repentance was no pro-forma, half-hearted, mealy-mouthed, “Dear-God-we’re-sorry-please-forgive-us” ritual. It was Super Bowl level, Nobel-prize caliber, Neiman-Marcus catalog, total quality repentance. No public opinion polling. No encounter groups or sensitivity sessions. No city council meetings or legislative deliberations. No Sunday School series or committee meetings. There was no temporizing or excuse making. There was only a collective shock of having been judged by the ultimately righteous God and their desire to turn away from sin.

I’m not sure we know how to do that kind of repentance today. Many of you may remember a best-selling book of the nineteen seventies called, I’m Okay, You’re Okay. I’ll bet the Ninevites said that to one another before Jonah showed up. It’s hardly a clarion call to repentance. We typically plead for God’s intervention in the mess we’re in now, as if God is a cosmic lifeguard who exists to bail us out of our self-made predicaments.

The Ninevites’ repentance was deep and profound—a genuine conviction of ignoring God and going their own way, doing their own thing. They urgently called upon God, giving up their sinful ways.

Jonah knew what kind of God he was representing. The forty days came and went. Nineveh was still standing. Jonah was so mad he wanted to die. He yelled at God, “I know this would happen! I knew you were a God of love, gracious and compassionate. That’s why I didn’t want to come here is the first place.” The Assyrians knew something about God, too. They knew something about God that it’s easy to forget. God responds to humble, genuinely contrite appeals for mercy. “Who knows?” they cried. “Perhaps God will relent and show compassion.”

The Ninevites took a chance on God. They bet on God’s mercy and love. We should not deride their faith.

Jesus told the story of the prodigal son who sank so low he slopped hogs for a living. The pig slop was better than his own meals. He set out for home, penniless, to ask his father to accept him as a servant. Who knows? Maybe his father will say yes.

A Roman centurion approached Jesus of Nazareth. The centurion’s beloved servant was desperately ill and near death. Who knows? The centurion thought. Maybe this Galilean rabbi really can heal my servant.

Do we have the faith even to ask, “Who knows?” It is true that the Ninevites had a deadline to meet to get right with God. Forty days is not a long time. But how much time do we need? We would be alarmed if we knew we would not live another month, but we are careless even though we don’t know we’ll live another day.

Who knows but that there are people sitting here who are not right with God and realize it? There’s no reason to wait any longer. No more time is needed. Christ’s grace has already brought you to this place, and not by accident. This is a church of the crucified and risen, living Christ, not a social club or civic organization. Our founder was a homeless Jew who was executed as a criminal insurrectionist and religious heretic. He was never on the social “A” list and he wouldn’t have been invited to the Swan Ball. Yet it is through this Christ Jesus that God accounts us as righteous. If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Today is the day. Now is the time.

Who knows? Perhaps God really is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, just as Jonah knew and the Ninevites discovered.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Jesus's Catch and Release

 Luke 5.1-11

1 Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2 he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets.

3 He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch."

5 Simon answered, "Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets."

6 When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7 So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink.

8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!"

9 For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who are partners with Simon.  Then Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people."

11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

I've always wondered whether Peter knew Jesus, or at least knew about Jesus, before they met this day. If not, Peter seems terribly compliant for a total stranger. But anyone who drew large crowds would have had a well-known reputation, so even if Peter and Jesus had never met before, Peter had surely heard plenty of gossip and rumors and reports about Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus asked Peter a question then gave a command. First, he asked to use his boat as a speaker’s platform. Peter could have said no. But Jesus did not ask Peter to sail into deep water and deploy his nets. He ordered him.

But the command was also a promise. Jesus didn't tell Peter to sail to deep water, let down the nets and maybe you'll get a catch of fish. No, all of this is matter of fact to Jesus: Sail the boat, let down the nets, catch the fish.

Perhaps the certainty of Jesus' voice compelled Peter to comply. The first word he said was, "Master," so Peter willingly put himself under Jesus' authority. He told Jesus it wouldn’t work but he would try it anyway.

So Peter and crew sailed to deep water and let down their nets. Right away they caught so many fish that the nets began to break under the strain. Peter called the boat of his partner to come help. By the time it got there the fish were so many that they filled both boats to the point that the boat started sinking.

What was Peter going to do with all those fish?

That question was not actually on Peter's mind. He fell at Jesus' knees and told him, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" 

Peter would later be the first disciple to announce that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. The germ of that confession formed on a boat foundering from the weight of the fish Jesus caused to be caught. Yet there had been no dramatic command from Jesus' lips; he never stretched his hands over the sea and yelled, "Fish! Come forth!" Jesus simply gave three simple commands, all to Peter, not the fish: sail the boat, let down the nets, catch the fish.

Peter knew who Jesus was all right. And Peter knew who he was himself. He and Jesus were like water and oil to one another in the holiness department and Peter knew it. Jesus knew it, too, but Jesus knew something Peter didn't. Peter saw only his own sin. Jesus knew that inside every sinful person is righteous potential.

Invoking that potential was the trick. Suppose Jesus had gone aboard Peter's boat to preach his sermon to the people on the lakeshore, just as the passage relates, and then, instead of telling Peter to sail the boat, let down the nets and catch the fish, Jesus had merely said, "Come and follow me." Would Peter have gone with him? I think not.

What was different about the enormous catch that made Peter leave everything behind? It was not that Peter realized he was a sinful man; he already knew that, though after witnessing the fishing miracle he knew it more urgently than before. It's not that Peter suddenly knew Jesus to be a holy man worthy of obedience: Peter had already called Jesus, "Master."

I think what made Peter follow Christ after the catch when he almost certainly would never have followed him beforehand was that Jesus gave abundantly to Peter before Peter confessed his sinfulness.

"While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. That proves his loves for us."

There is a story of Fiorello LaGuardia, mayor of New York City during the Great Depression and all of World War II. He was a colorful character who used to ride the New York City fire trucks, raid speakeasies with the police department, take entire orphanages to baseball games, and whenever the New York newspapers were on strike, he would go on the radio and read the Sunday funnies to the kids. One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself. 

A tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter's husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. "It's a real bad neighborhood, your Honor," the man told the mayor. "She's got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson."

LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, "I've got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions – ten dollars or ten days in jail." But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and said, "Here is the ten-dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a woman has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant."

The following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 – worth 973 dollars today - was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, fifty cents of that amount being contributed by the red‑faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.

Do you think that the grandmother voted for LaGuardia next election?

It was Jesus' grace, undeserved and in fact unasked for, that overwhelmed Peter. So, Peter fell at Jesus' knees, protesting that he didn't deserve the abundance Christ offered. Jesus said don't worry, from now on you will be catching people for me. Jesus was a fisher, too, but he fished for sinners like Peter, like you and like me.

Here’s another fish story by novelist Frederick Forsyth called, “The Emperor.” It told of Roger Murgatroyd and his wife, Edna, who went to the former French colony of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean for a vacation one summer. Myrgatroyd, a bank branch manager, had never done anything particularly challenging in his life. He became intrigued at stories of an immense swordfish in the offshore waters. The Emperor, as the locals called the swordfish, had often been hooked but never caught, even after titanic battles lasting hours. Experienced deep-sea fishermen were certain that the swordfish was of world-record size: twelve hundred pounds and at least twenty feet long.

Myrgatroyd decides to give deep-sea fishing a try and as luck would have it, he hooks the Emperor about 9 a.m. By noon Myrgatroyd's lips are cracked from sun and spray. His arms are burning with exhaustion from fighting the great fish. Two hours later the charter owner, Kilian, pleads to relieve him at the line for awhile.

"Myrgatroyd opened his mouth to speak. A split in his lip cracked wide and a trickle of blood ran onto his chin. The cork grip of the pole was becoming slick with the blood from his palms.

"My fish," he croaked. "My fish."

More time passed, reeling in and out, keeping the line taut so the Emperor couldn't spit out the hook. "His vision was blurring ... And his body was one searing ache. Shafts of sharper pain ran through his right shoulder where he had torn a muscle. ...

"For another ninety minutes they fought it out. ... Myrgatroyd's exhaustion was moving close to delirium. Muscles in his calves and thighs flickered crazily like light bulbs before they fuse."

After eight hours, though, the Emperor had nothing left. He wore out only slightly before Myrgatroyd would have. Myrgatroyd reeled in the line until Kilian could seize the steel trace that held the hook. Then he slumped in his chair, spent. The boat's crew heaved the huge fish toward the deck, where Myrgatroyd suddenly realized, shocked, that a boy was about to plunge a gaff hook into the Emperor's head.

Myrgatroyd's "voice came out more a raucous croak than a shout. "No!"

"The boy froze and looked down. Myrgatroyd was on his hands and knees looking at the tackle box. On top lay a pair of wire cutters. He took them in the finger and thumb of his left hand and pressed them into the mashed meat of his right palm. With his free hand he hauled himself upright and leaned across the stern.

"The Emperor was lying just beneath him, exhausted almost to the point of death. ... From two feet away the fish stared back at Myrgatroyd. ... it was alive but had no strength left to fight. ...

"Deliberately, Myrgatroyd placed the jaws of the cutters on either side of the steel trace where it was spliced into the hook. He squeezed. Blood came out of his palm and ran into the salt water over the marlin's head. He squeezed again and the wire parted.

"The Emperor stared at Myrgatroyd as another wave washed over him. He shook his tired old head and pushed his spike into the water. The great crescent tail rose and fell and pushed the body forward and down. The tail was the last they saw of him, driving the marlin back beneath the waves."

Kilian turned the boat toward shore. When they docked a boat boy jumped off and ran to the village. Kilian secured the vessel, then helped Myrgatroyd walk onto the pier. "The hem of his shorts had fallen to below his knees and his shirt flapped open about him, dark with dried sweat. A number of villagers were lining the narrow jetty, so they had to walk in single file.

"The first person in line was Monsieur Patient. Myrgatroyd nodded to him and smiled. "Merci," he said.

The old man pulled his hat from head. "Salut, Maitre," he replied.

Myrgatroyd walked slowly up the jetty. Each of the villagers bobbed his head and said, "Salut, Maitre." They reached the end of the planking and stepped onto the gravel of the village street. There was a large crowd of villagers grouped there. "Salut, salut, salut, Maitre" they said quietly.

"What are they saying?" Myrgatroyd whispered to Kilian.

"They're greeting you," came the answer. "They're calling you a master fisherman."

"Because I caught the Emperor?"

The captain laughed softly. "No Englishman, because you gave him his life back."

Do you remember when you got hooked by Christ? And do you remember that he gave you your life back? He suffered immensely while you and I fought him, but we finally yielded. And then an amazing thing: he let us go because the grace of Christ gives us life – our true life, more abundant than ever. Jesus said, “If the Son of God makes you free, you will be free indeed.” And so we are.

That's what Peter suddenly knew one day when he sailed with the Master – that Jesus was a catch-and-release fisherman. And that's why he left everything and followed him.

Jesus is served

John 6.5-14 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people t...