An Outlook of Mercy

Mercy for Community
Jonah 4:1-11
Midweek Lenten Service
March 16, 2016
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

The story of Jonah is a familiar one.  What Sunday School child hasn’t heard of Jonah, the prophet of the Lord, and his captivating tale of action and suspense, his foolishly trying to overcome impossible odds and actually hide from God. There’s a terrifying storm and the 70018inside of a great fish. But there’s also redemption, first for the prophet who sees the error of his ways and delivers God’s message to Nineveh, but also for the Ninevites who hear the word of warning and repent. Yes, the story is well known and well loved, yet there’s one detail we tend to ignore, a nugget hidden in the last chapter of the book. We often act as if the story ends when Nineveh is spared, but there is more to the story.  In fact, if we skip the conclusion we miss the main point we’re meant to take away from the book, for the conclusion reveals Jonah’s reason for fleeing in the first place. Have you ever considered why Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh? What in the world would inspire him to try to hide from the all seeing eye of God himself? I think most people assume Jonah was acting from fear. And that seems logical, for the Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, a notorious empire whose name in the pages of history is forever linked with brutality and arrogance. Quite simply put, they had a reputation for being inhospitable to visitors. They considered themselves better than others, and treated their supposed inferiors accordingly. Given the reputation of Assyrians, it seems reasonable that Jonah was simply afraid to go to Nineveh.

However, the words of Jonah himself betray a different motivation for running from God. You could say it was fear of sorts that sent him in the opposite direction, but it wasn’t fear for his own safety or fear of what the Ninevites might do to him, it was fear of what God might do for them. Too often we treat the story of Jonah as if it ends when the people of Nineveh repent. Jonah preaches, the people repent, God withholds disaster, and they all live happily ever after. Except, that’s not what happened. Instead, when the people of Nineveh repented and God withheld disaster, “it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet Jonah-Angryin my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

The only fear that Jonah felt was fear that the wicked Ninevites might be spared. He would have gladly have travelled to Nineveh to witness its destruction. It probably would have filled him with great joy to see those smug you-know-what’s burn for what they had done. If God promised to reenact Sodom and Gomorrah, Jonah probably would have paid his own way to get a front row seat. But forgiveness? Jonah couldn’t bear the thought of that. And he knew God was merciful, and he knew God would forgive them if they repented, he just knew it. And that was simply a risk he wasn’t willing to take.  So he ran.

What risks are we unwilling to take with the mercy of God? What chances with his compassion? We know Jesus’s words all too well. “When I was hungry, you gave me food. When I was thirsty, you gave me drink, when I was a stranger you welcomed me, when I was sick you visited me, when I was in prison you came to me.” We know Jesus’ words and we try to fulfill them. We organize water drives for the people of Flint, we host MCREST each fall, we provide a small food pantry on site and support larger organizations who do much more to feed and clothe the homeless. We do all these things from a kind and generous heart, putting into action the gift of faith which our Lord has provided. But such efforts offer us the convenience of separation, of not having to actually interact with the people we assist. And such distance often blind us to the toxic attitudes we tend to cling to, most times without us even realizing we are doing it.

So ask yourself: what about forgiveness? What about repentance? What is our attitude toward the people in the world around us, the people we work with, the people in our neighborhoods? What is our attitude toward the people on the opposite side of the political aisle? What is our attitude toward those who support Trump or Clinton or Sanders or Cruz? Dives and LazarusWhat is our attitude toward those bleeding heart liberals or those cold-hearted conservatives? Do we want to see the mercy and grace of God freely given to all people? Or, like Jonah, do we harbor a secret desire that some people would be left out, that some people would be given only the wrath of God, that some people would be deemed goats on the last day. Who would we like to see sent into eternal punishment?

This is where the story of Jonah hits us right between the eyes, and why I think that the first three chapters that we are so familiar with, the stuff about the Ninevites and the great fish and Jonah’s change of heart, are actually nothing more than the set up. I think the main point we are supposed to take from the story of Jonah is found in the conclusion. For I doubt that any of us will receive a vision from God sending us to preach repentance in the headquarters of ISIS, but I bet all of us can see our own guilt in Jonah’s attitude. When Jonah becomes angry at God for sparing the wicked city, he takes himself out to a high hill overlooking Nineveh. There, he builds a small shelter to protect himself from the sun’s scorching rays, and the Lord even gives him a vine to provide extra shade and protection.  The next day, the Lord destroys the vine and Jonah is left to endure the sun and wind unguarded. When Jonah questions God for this, God’ response is as poignant as it is simple. “Why, Jonah, are you upset that I would destroy a plant when you are lusting over the destruction of a city filled with life, human and animal alike? Should I not be merciful instead of vengeful?”

And the book ends there, leaving that question hanging in the air, and leaving us to squirm in our seats. We never get Jonah’s response, for this question is not merely asked to Jonah, it is asked to us, and it is the crux of the entire book. Put yourself in Jonah’s shoes. How far are we willing to run in the opposite direction to ensure that the message of repentance is not preached to certain people, to homosexuals or Muslims or some other group?  How thirsty are we for their destruction? Do we have an attitude of mercy for our community, even for the community of this the 21st Century, a community filled with gender confusion and narcissism and entitlement and moral chaos? Or would we rather see the fires of heaven consume the wicked? Do we truly hope that the suicide bomber repented of his choice in the split second between when he pushed the button and when the explosion went off?  Or do we find secret solace in the hope that at least he’s burning in the fires of eternal torment for what he did?

The fact of the matter is, we are more like Jonah than we care to admit. And yet our Lord remains merciful. He had mercy on the people of Nineveh. He has mercy on us too. And his mercy makes all the difference in the world. He has mercy for our lust. Sure, we may not have actually raped anyone like the Assyrians so commonly did, but we have raped with our eyes and our minds. He has mercy for our greed. Sure, we may not be guilty of sacking and plundering cities throughout the region like the Assyrians were notorious for, yet we certainly think twice before throwing a dollar into the cup of the homeless guy we pass on our way to Comerica Park.  The Lord has mercy for our bitterness and hatred and condescending arrogance, for the self-righteous thoughts that cross our mind when we see that cross dresser or that lesbian couple.

Quite simply, the Lord has mercy for our sin. While we deserve only punishment and wrath, our Lord provides the sun and rain to water the earth and make it grow, he provides food and clothing and shelter, he provides family and friendships and all the blessings of this life. Even more, he provides his Word that calls us to repentance and promises us tumblr_ldcbxwQKQ91qes9ozo1_500forgiveness. We didn’t deserve to have that Word preached to us any more than the people of Nineveh did, yet there it was. And now here we are, because that Word did it’s work, because it accomplished the purpose for which it was sent.

Just like the Word made flesh accomplished the purpose for which he was sent. It was our lack of mercy, it was our lust for vengeance that nailed Jesus to the cross, just as much as anything the people of Nineveh were guilty of. It was the sin in our lives that filled the cup of judgment that Jesus had to drink in our place. But drink it he did. With agonizing drops of sweaty blood he prayed for that cup to be taken from him, yet when the moment came, he drank it. He consumed it for you. He took the judgment Nineveh deserved. He took the judgment Jonah deserved. He took the judgement each person in this room today deserves. He took it all. He drank the cup.

When we see ourselves for the Jonahs we are, and when we see the mercy we have each been given from the gracious hand of a loving God, only then can we truly live in mercy toward our community. Perhaps you’ve seen the video  (warning: some explicit language) floating around online of the young men who went around asking people for a slice of pizza. Each time they were met with confused looks. Sometimes they were politely homelessmanturned away, other times they were called names. But never did they get any food.  Then, one of the young men bought a pizza and gave it to a homeless man, no strings attached. He simply gave it to the man and walked away. They secretly videoed the man eating his pizza, and a few minutes later one of the other young men asked the homeless man for a piece. He gave it without a moment’s hesitation. What he had received purely from the mercy of another, he shared with the same mercy.

The mercy of God works the same way. What we have graciously received from the hand of God as pure gift we now share with others. The eyes of faith reveal to us that everything in this life is a blessing from God, for without his mercy I would have nothing. It is by his mercy that I have the ability to work and earn a paycheck. Yes, I still do the work, but it’s by the grace of God that I have the ability to work at all, for he is the one who makes my body work, he is the one who sustains my life. Everything we have we owe to his undeserved mercy.  So we share what we have been given.

Except the mercy of God extends beyond providing food and clothing and shelter – even the unbelieving world can do that. The mercy of God comes when we preach the God of forgiveness, when we live lives of self-sacrifice, even toward those who we think don’t deserve it.  It is only through the mercy of God that anyone in this room today has the gift of faith. It is not our doing. We certainly don’t deserve it. So why would we seek the Open-Bible-with-Penjudgment of those who do not possess this great gift? It is through the mercy of God that we love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who persecute us. It is through the mercy of God that we turn the other cheek after being struck by the insults of this world, allowing them to strike at us again. It is through the mercy of God that we withhold eternal judgment about who is or isn’t worthy of God’s mercy. For such judgment is not ours to make, and if we judge with the harshness of Jonah, such harshness will be used against us.

Rather, we humbly rejoice in the gift of faith that our Lord has worked in us and we live in mercy toward our community, beginning with the attitude found in our hearts, an attitude shaped by a humble and honest confession of our own worthiness. An attitude shaped by the gracious love and undeserved mercy shown to us while we were yet sinners. And Christ who is alive in us shapes us into people who have the same mercy and concern for others who are yet without faith, that we would look upon them in mercy, not judgment. For that is who we are in Christ. That is who we are through baptism. We are people of mercy: mercy for the church; mercy for the sick and ill; mercy for the family; mercy for life; mercy for our community.

That’s who we are as the people of God.

+INJ+

 

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Life in the Fray: Pride (Midweek Service – March 18, 2015)

Life in the Fray: Pride
 Kings 20:12-21
Midweek Lenten Service
March 18, 2015
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

             King Ahaz of Judah was a wicked king.  The kings of God’s people were supposed to rule in such a way that the people remembered that Yahweh was the true sovereign over the land, but Ahaz treated Judah as if it was any other earthly kingdom.  When King Ahaz was faced with the threat of invasion, he chose not to trust in God’s promise to keep Jerusalem safe. The prophet Isaiah explicitly told King Ahaz to trust God to defend Judah, but Ahaz did not listen. Instead, he sought protection at the hands of the Assyrians.  That’s like a mouse enlisting a cat to help him solve a dispute with another mouse. Assyria agreed to help Ahaz defend his throne from invasion, but only if Ahaz willingly agreed to make Judah an Assyrian province. That meant not only paying taxes to the Assyrian King, but also paying tribute to the Assyrian gods, setting up high places to sacrifice to the Assyrian deities, even performing such sacrifices on the Alter of Yahweh’s Temple in Jerusalem. King Ahaz wanted to do things himself. Too proud to trust God’s deliverance, Ahaz wanted to do things his way. He trusted earthly politics more than divine protection. He turned his back on the help that God offered and instead sought help from an earthly power, a power which quickly enslaved Ahaz and Judah. Ahaz was a bad king.

But King Ahaz did not live forever. After Ahaz died, Hezekiah took the throne. And according to the book of 2 Chronicles, Hezekiah was a good king. He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, much like King David had done. In the first month of the first year of his reign, he repairedhezekiahsmall the Temple doors. He restored proper Temple worship and destroyed the altars used for false worship that Ahaz had scattered throughout the land. He sent an invitation to the northern tribes of Israel to join Judah in celebration of the Passover, to return once again to the proper worship of Yahweh and to live as his people. But Judah was still supposed to be an Assyrian province as negotiated by King Ahaz.  When the King of Assyria heard that the new King of Judah was destroying the altars of the Assyrian gods and that he was not paying tribute as a province should, he sent an army to put Hezekiah back in his place. But Hezekiah and his kingdom had nothing to fear, for they were living in the proper place as the people of God. With the imposing Assyrian army encamped around Jerusalem, and with no hope for escape, Hezekiah did what a godly King of Judah should do: he prayed. He did not trust his own powers and abilities; he did not trust the strength of his army or the strategies of his military mind. He turned the problem over to the Lord, and the Lord answered. That night the angel of the Lord went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. The Assyrians left Jerusalem alone because they were afraid of Hezekiah’s God. Judah was a free people again.

Hezekiah’s humility had given Judah what Ahaz’s pride couldn’t: deliverance from the Assyrians. But after that deliverance Hezekiah grew deathly ill, so ill, in fact, that the prophet Isaiah returned to tell the king to put his affairs in order, for his death was imminent. In the face of his own death, Hezekiah once again humbly appealed to the Lord’s mercy to deliver him, and once again, the Lord obliged. Hezekiah was miraculously healed from the illness that threatened his life, and he was returned to the throne of Jerusalem to continue leading God’s people.

But pride is like a weed. As the snow melts and you look out on your lawn today, you probably don’t see any dandelions yet.  But just give it a few weeks.  Soon enough, those bright yellow parasites will be everywhere.  Pride works the same way.  While you Dandelion-emoedgars-sxc.jpg2_may not see evidence of it on the surface, you can rest assured that it is hiding just out of sight, waiting for the right moment to poke through. In the first case, Hezekiah remained humble and trusted God to deliver Judah from the Assyrians. In the second case, Hezekiah remained humble and trusted God to deliver him from his illness. But for pride’s assaults on Hezekiah, the third time’s the charm. In the third case, Hezekiah fell victim to the same pride that was Ahaz’s undoing. After being miraculously restored to health, Hezekiah was paid a visit by a special envoy from the King of Babylon. The king heard of Hezekiah’s sickness and recovery, and he also heard of Jerusalem’s miraculous deliverance from the Assyrians. He heard of the two great things God had done for Hezekiah. It is very likely that the reason the Babylonian king sent these messengers to visit Hezekiah was not simply to congratulate him on being restored to health, but to enlist him as an ally against Assyria. It was a political move, much like Ahaz had been faced with many years earlier. And like Ahaz before him, Hezekiah fell victim to his pride. He may have looked to the Lord for deliverance in times of need, but in times of peace he trusted the kings of the earth. He trusted the things of the earth. He took pride in the freedom and strength of his kingdom, so much so that he opened up his entire palace to the Babylonians, bragging about all his treasures and weapons and medicines. Rather than trusting that the same God who had granted freedom to Judah would keep Judah free, Hezekiah pursued a political solution to the problem at hand, a solution of his own devising. And that pride cost him. That pride cost Judah. That pride was the last straw, and God would put up with no more. So the prophet Isaiah was sent to inform Judah that the wealth of their palace would be carried off into Babylon, as would the sons of Judah. Pride goes before the fall, and the fall was coming.

These two kings of Judah demonstrate the danger that pride poses in the lives of God’s children, the way that pride poisons our actions. Sometimes, like Ahaz, pride shows itself in a brazen rejection of God’s will in favor of a different way of doing things. Sometimes, like Hezekiah, a person who has been faithful to God in times of distress falls victim to pride when the going gets easier. In either case, pride is idolatry of the self. That’s why C.S. Lewis called pride “the great sin,” because pride can lead to any other sin. Sinful pride is the poisonous belief that I know better than God, that my way is better than his. Sinful pride believes I deserve the best, better than anyone else. Or, to quote Lewis once more, “Pride takes no pleasure in having something, only in having more than the next person.”

The poison of pride will corrupt our every thought, word, and deed, but it is not without antidote.  The antidote to pride has several elements, starting with an honest confession of who Jesus is and what he has done. Jesus, who though he was by nature God was not so proud that he would refuse to submit to his Father’s will, took on human flesh.  He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the painful and humiliating death of crucifixion. He remained silent before Pilate, humbly abiding by his jesusandpilateFather’s will rather than defending himself or setting himself free. It was not pride that put Jesus on the cross, but humility. As Jesus prayed in the garden his refrain was, “Father, not my will but yours be done.” He humbly submitted to the Father’s will. He humbly washed the disciples’ feet. He humbly travelled the countryside without a place to lay his head. He lived his entire earthly life in humility, not letting pride lead him to demand that he get his way. Remembering how the Son of God lived when he was on earth is a powerful antidote to pride in our lives.

But an even more powerful element in pride’s antidote is remembering why the Son of God came to earth in the first place. He came to earth because of my sin. The wall of pride breaks down when we make honest confession of the reality that it is my sinful thoughts, my lies, my lust, my greed, my envy, my hatred that brought Jesus out of heaven and nailed him to a cross. Pride seeks to make excuses for sinful actions. Hezekiah and Ahaz both forgot that their time as king was a gift from God, and because they forgot this, they acted in prideful ways. So often we forget that each day of our lives is a gift from God. We forget that we don’t sustain our own life, and that without our Lord causing our hearts to beat and our lungs to work we wouldn’t have today, much less tomorrow. Yet in our pride we treat each day as if it’s ours by right, as if we deserve it.  We ignore our sin or excuse it away.  It’s easy to do because we live in a world so proud that all sin is simply explained away. Almost any behavior is treated as normal, and those that aren’t normal still aren’t your fault, they are the result of your upbringing or other social influences. But they certainly aren’t regarded as sin, and you certainly don’t need to confess them, not to in the eyes of the world at least. That is fertile ground for pride to fester.  But an honest estimation of ourselves based on the standard of God’s word tells us otherwise. There we see that we are by nature sinful and unclean. There we see the depths of our sin – so deep that pride cannot stand.

Remembering who Jesus was and how he lived is a powerful antidote to pride. So also is remembering that the reason he came to earth was to undo the evil that I have done. And yet another element in the antidote to pride is the means by which this forgiveness is brought into our lives. A splash of water. A small piece of bread. A sip of wine. A simple word. These simple gifts shatter my pride because while they do such great things, they are so common. They are available to everyone.  They are not so expensive that only the wealthy could be saved.  They do not give me access to a super-Word-and-Sacramentsecret club that exists solely to exclude others.  They are for everyone, rich or poor, smart or not, skilled or clumsy.  They are not so obscure that only those who live in the right region of the globe would have easy access to them. They are common, universal elements. Bread, water, wine, words. These common things crush my sinful pride, for if God chooses such simple means to accomplish such great things, why do I assume I must be something great before God will to give them to me? These are not prizes given out to the top one percent; these are God’s gifts for anyone and everyone who wants them. In humility, we recognize that though we are weak and helpless, our Lord is not. He is the one who accomplishes anything in our lives. And such a realization leaves no room for pride.

And ultimately, when our pride is knocked down, a true sense of self-worth can be built up. Pride is dangerous because it is idolatry of the self. But that doesn’t mean we have to hate ourselves. What it means is that the worth we see in ourselves doesn’t come from us – it comes from Christ who lives in us.  My sin was so great the Jesus left heaven and died for it – that reality crushes my pride. But the fact that Jesus loves me so much that he was willing to undergo such torture shows my true worth in God’s eyes. It is not a value I create for myself by the successes or accomplishments in my life. It comes entirely from being a baptized child of God.  Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord. Ahaz wanted his value to come from political savviness, so he ignored the identity God gave him and set out to make his own. Hezekiah, though he had been faithful in times of distress, still craved acceptance from the world so much that when he was finally approached by the cool kids, when he was invited to sit at the table with the global power Babylon, he turned his back on who God has created him to be.  Such is the danger of pride: it puts the self in the seat of God. May our Lord grant us repentant eyes and hearts of faith this Lenten season, that we might not fall victim to pride as these kings of Judah did, but that we would rather find our worth always in what Christ has done for us, and in who he has created us to be.

Pound Your Chest

 

kill_your_gorilla

Do you ever pound your chest?  Gorillas pound their chest in an effort to show the other animals in the area how strong or intimidating they are.  It’s an action of aggression and self-promotion.  Athletes do the same.  After an important play or a significant win, grown men will often ape the apes by pounding their own chests in a primitive display of emotion.  In our culture, chest pounding conveys confident, aggressive behavior.  But it was not always so.

In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells us of two men.  One of the men was proud, arrogant, and teeming with self-confidence.  He approached God boldly, considering himself secure in his righteousness.  He “pounded his chest” before God, thanking God that he was not like the other sinners in the world.  He trumpeted himself and his own supposed phariseeaccomplishments before God, drawing the card of his righteousness from a stacked deck by comparing himself with the worst people he can think of, then smugly pointing out that he is not like those people.  The other man approached God in humility.  He too came pounding his chest, but his was not a display of machismo. It was a display of repentance and humility.  The only words he could muster were, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  Jesus concluded the story with the words, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” [Luke 18:14].

There are obvious cultural differences when it comes to the way people show remorse.  We no longer tear our clothing or wear sackcloth in repentance; people pound their chests for different reasons these days.  But that’s the whole point.  It’s not simply that the physical action of raising my fist and striking my chest now carries a different significance.  Our problem is not so much that we live in a culture that has taken an action that used to indicate repentance and turned it into something that indicates pride or aggression.  Our problem is that we have taken sin itself and made it something to be proud of.  Like the people in the pages of Scripture, we too live in a world that beats its chest when confronted with its sin.  The difference is that now it does so in arrogance instead of repentance.  Now sexual sin is no longer called sin, it’s celebrated as diversity.  Financial sin is no longer called greed, it is applauded as initiative and ambition.  The sin of taking life is no longer termed murder, it is categorized as choice.  We live in a world that pounds its chest before God, defiantly daring him to do something drastic to demonstrate his dominion, for the world doubts that he is even there at all.

What are we to do in the midst of such chest pounding?  We pound our chests too, but we do so in humility and repentance, joining our voice to the voice of the tax collector and crying out: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  The world that exalts itself will be humbled when Jesus is revealed on the last day.  The children of God who humble themselves inprayer-at-cross1 confession will be exalted when Jesus, the one who truly humbled himself even to the point of death on the cross, is exalted for the entire world to see.  Then he will take his brothers and sisters in baptism into his Father’s house, to the rooms he prepared for them.

So let the world have its chest pounding, and we’ll keep ours.  While the world defiantly attempts to redefine reality according to its own passions, we will cling to the truth of Holy Scripture.  We will continue in the Word, for only then will we be truly free.  For in that word we are given Jesus Christ, the one who humbled himself in order that we might be exalted in him.