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the sermon for

the Third Sunday after Epiphany

21 January 2018

Jonah 3:1-5 , Jonah 3:10
God doesn't hate; god loves!

01212018I have to tell, y'all, now, right from the start, for the longest time, it was all about the whale! I'd never read the book myself, as a kid. But I'd watched the cartoons. I'd colored the pictures. And every time I saw Jonah, the whale wouldn't be far away. Even nowadays, in this digital age, if you go online and do an image search on Google, that's pretty much all you get. One picture, after another, after another of Jonah and that whale. Jonah getting swallowed by the whale. Jonah inside the whale. Jonah getting spewed out of that whale. And all along, I thought it was one of those "wow" things. Something to amaze. Something to astound. Something god did to prove god was god and we weren't! Catching our attention. Capturing our imagination.

And back in the day, when we used the red hymnal, worship didn't much help. In fact, it's as if Jonah didn't, even, exist. In the course of a year, we never read a single, solitary verse! Not even about the whale! Everything we knew, we learned in Sunday school. Or picked up on the street. Or saw on the television. And the move to the green book didn't help all that much. We read Jonah, but only twice in the course of three years. Two times out of every one hundred fifty-six Sundays! Year B, on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany – like today – and on one of the Sundays-After. seven months from now. Six verses now. Twelve more something in September. And none of them, none of them had anything to do about a whale. In fact, out of the forty-eight verses that make up the book of Jonah, only two – ONLY TWO – are about the "great fish"!

Jonah, you see, if it is about anything is about god's love! If it's about anything it's about god's love as opposed to our love! We love our neighbors! We love our friends! We love those who love us! But we hate our enemies! And like us – Jonah believes god does the same. Loving those who love god! Hating those who don't. And the Ninevites were among the latter group. Nineveh was the capital of the Empire of Assyria. Powerful. Prosperous. And the enemies of god's people. It was Nineveh – Assyria – that seven centuries before Jesus wiped the Northern Ten Tribes of Israel from the face of the earth. Conquering. Destroying. It was Nineveh – Assyria – who laid siege to Jerusalem during the time of Isaiah and made the remaining two tribes their slave. And Jonah hated them for it, as any good Jew would do. Jonah detested Nineveh. Jonah abhorred Nineveh. And god had the nerve to send Jonah there to proclaim good news!

"Go, at once, to Nineveh," said god, "and cry out against it!' God wanted Jonah to save it, to deliver it, to redeem it, and Jonah knew it. And so, Jonah did what any self-respecting, god-fearing believer would do! When god said go east, Jonah went west... as far and as fast as he could go! Mosel in Iraq is present-day Nineveh. And Jonah went down to the sea, found a ship, and headed for Spain! That's where the whale comes in. There's a storm. Jonah's thrown overboard. And the whale swallows Jonah and returns him to Palestine where god told him to go. So Jonah goes to Nineveh. Reluctantly. Halfheartedly. Hesitantly. Grudgingly. Unwillingly. Unenthusiastically. But he goes. And one day into a city three days walk across, he speaks. "Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown." Nothing about god. Nothing about wicked ways. But in spite of his apathetic message, the people react! The people respond! The king gets up from the throne. He takes off his robe and puts on sackcloth. And he sits in ashes. Everyone fasts! Everyone calls out to god! They all turn! And god repents. God changes god's mind. And Nineveh goes on!

Nineveh is saved! And Jonah is angry! Incensed! Infuriated! How dare god save Jonah's enemies? How dare god save those who hate Israel? How dare god save those Israel hates? Hates with a righteous, holy hatred! And in return, god asks Jonah, "Who do you think you are? Who are you to tell me whom I will love and whom I will not love?

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.

God loved Nineveh! God loved the Ninevites! And Jonah moped. Jonah mourned.

It's like Martin Niemöller said. Niemöller was one of the few Lutheran pastors in Germany who took Hitler to task. And of course, as a result, he spent the war in the concentration camps at in Sachsenhausen and Dachau. Anyway, he said, "It took me a long time to learn that god is not the enemy of my enemies." It took me a long time to learn that god is not the enemy of my enemies! Then he added, "God isn't even the enemy of god's enemies." "It took me a long time to learn that god is not the enemy of my enemies; god isn't even the enemy of god's enemies." God is never – is NEVER – an enemy! God is never an opponent, an adversary, a nemesis, a foe! God doesn't hate! People hate, god doesn't! God doesn't hate the people we hate. We don't hate the people god hates. Because the truth of the matter is that god doesn't hate! God can't hate! God is incapable of hating! God loves! Period. Exclamation mark! End of sentence!

That's what Jonah is about! From verse one, chapter one to chapter four, verse eleven. God loves the unlovable. God saves the unthinkable! That's "the sign of Jonah" in the gospels. "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign," Jesus says, "but no sign shall be given to it exce3pt the sign of Jonah." Matthew's the only one who mentions the whale. But Mark and Luke let the phrase speak for itself. The sign of Jonah is love! Always, forever love! The love of family! The love of neighbors! The love of friends! But even more, the love of enemies! Real, honest-to-god, down-to-earth enemies just like the Ninevites!

It took me a long time to learn that god is not the enemy of my enemies.
It took me a long time to learn that god isn't even the enemy of god's enemies.

It's not about the whale. It never was. In a way, I wish it was about the whale. That would be simple, easy, child's play. But instead, it's about the love. God's love, foremost and first. Then, our love in turn. Echoing. Reflecting. No. Jonah isn't about the whale. It's about god's love challenging us! God's love daring us! Love audacious and bold! "Get up!" says god, "Go! Proclaim! Love your enemies! Pray for your persecutors! Shine on the evil! Rain down on the unrighteous!" For that, my friends, THAT is the story, the sign, of Jonah!

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the sermon for

the Second Sunday after Epiphany

14 January 2018

1 Samuel 3:1-20 ]
God speaks one word... LOVE!

01142018"GOD'S WORD TO AMERICA," according to the billboard, is simple and it's plain, "REPENT. RETURN TO GOD NOW. JUDGMENT IS AT THE DOOR." In big, bold, black, capital letters! And underneath, a single bible verse. "2 CHRON. 7:14" Of course, I had to look that one up. Solomon has just dedicated the Temple. God's moved from a tent into a palace. That night, the Lord appears to Solomon. "When I shut up the heavens," god says, "When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people," – and this is verse fourteen – "if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land." The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

This is quintessential, stereotypical American Christianity! And from start to finish, beginning to end, it's all about us! Our repenting! Our returning! Our humbling and praying and seeking and turning! And there's not one word in it about Jesus or the cross! I imagine that whoever invested the time and trouble, the effort and energy, the dollars and cents, into this billboard, probably felt they were being trustworthy! Faithful! As if this was really something God wanted America to know. But this time past, I had to wonder.

This time past, I thought about the first reading, for this morning. God calls Samuel. Three times god calls him. And when god, finally, gets Samuel's undivided attention, it's all judgment, all punishment, all condemnation. "I am about to punish Eli and his sons," god says. And when Eli asks Samuel what god said, Samuel tells it all! He holds back nothing! And we're told, because of that, Samuel was respected. "And all Israel, from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the LORD." Because he willing "to speak truth – even bad truth – to power." Let the chips fall where they may!

And so, in American Christianity, because of stories like this, prophecy ha become synonymous with heaven and hell, fire and brimstone, wrath and retribution! Being brutally honest. Standing for something. Standing up to everyone.


Here in the U.S., it's, always, faith and fear, hand-in-hand. So, we humble ourselves and we pray and we seek god's face and turn from our evil, wicked ways. Because we know what happens if we don't...

But, you know, there's a couple things wrong with this billboard-kind of believing. First of all, that warning from 2nd Chronicles... at the bottom of it all... was something god said to Solomon, not George Washington. And "the people" are not Americans; they're Israelis, ruled by Solomon, living in Canaan, three thousand years ago! The words were spoken a thousand years before Christ! Spoken long before Christ suffered and was crucified, died, and was buried! Long before Jesus descended and rose!

But even more concerning, this is not the word of god according to the church! It might be spoken in the Temple or in a synagogue or in the wilderness along the Jordan River. But it isn't a word that would be spoken by the church! In the New Testament, there is no repentance! In the New Testament, there is no returning! In the New Testament, it's not judgment at the door, it's Jesus! It's grace and it's mercy; it's forgiveness and love! This billboard isn't why we're here! And it's not what we're about!

Look at it! Take a close look! There's no turning the other cheek! There's no going an extra mile! No doing unto others! No forgiving! Not once! Not seven times! Not seventy-seven times! This, simply, isn't the gospel! Where's Jesus in it? Where's the cross? There's only ultimatum. Repent! Return. Humble yourselves and pray and seek and turn! Or else! It's all up to us.

No, as a people of god – as the church – our prophets – especially the trustworthy, faithful ones – don't sound, at all, like this billboard! They're different! Poles apart! Our prophets don't proclaim condemnation; they proclaim forgiveness! Our prophets don't proclaim commandment; they proclaim promise! Our prophets don't proclaim expectations; they proclaim love! Deep and abiding! Pure, unbounded!

This, THIS isn't the gospel! THIS isn't Jesus Christ, the flesh-and-blood Word of god! That two-thirds to three-quarters of Lutherans, I've talked about in the past, who disagree with or don't understand the basic teachings of the church? This is what they believe! This is what they agree with, what they understand! REPENT. RETURN. JUDGMENT. It's what Luther calls law! And it's everything gospel isn't!

"In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us and for his sake God forgives us all!" That's gospel! By grace, for Christ's sake, through faith! That's good news! And it's nowhere on that billboard! "The body of Christ given for you?" Where's that? "The blood of Christ shed for you?" And what about the well-spoken words at the end of worship? "The Lord blesses you! The Lord keeps you! The Lord's face shines on you! Shines with forgiveness! Shines with love! The Lord looks on you with favor! The Lord gives you peace!" Where is that Word of god? On those billboards? Instead, there's only warnings and threats. Only challenges and demands.

The message of the church, the message from OUR prophets, is love! Only love! Pure fatherly, motherly, divine! Without any merit or worthiness, at all! We're, just, not like the churches around us! That's what makes it so hard being Lutheran in West Texas! We're not what people look for! We're not what people expect! We're not, even, what they necessarily want! You see, people like to point fingers and they like to shake their fists and raise their voices and feel all righteous! And given the choice between that and picking up a cross and following, they'll choose that, eight times out of ten! No, as people, we'd much rather come up with a religion we can agree with, one we prefer, and call it believing! In the end, there's nothing but ourselves and that's much easier than believing in god. "REPENT," it says! "RETURN TO GOD NOW! JUDGMENT IS AT THE DOOR!" "Humble yourselves! Pray! Seek my face! Turn from your wicked ways!" And we say, "Amen! This is most certainly true!"

But for us, that's not the word of god. That's not what god says, no matter how badly we want to hear it. God's voice is softer. More gentle. The message a whole lot more comforting. God – OUR god – comes to us... and lifts us up... and holds us close... and whispers, "I'm here... I've got you... It's okay..." No unlesses! No untils! No ifs or ands or buts! There's just love. Love no one can take away, no even us!

Of course, there's not a whole lot we can do about things like this billboard. After all, this is America! Land of the free! Home of the brave! We can believe anything we want! Anything we like! Even if it's wrong! We can call up down. We can call in out. We can call evil good. We can even call law gospel. Things like this will always be with us.

But, my friends, when you do come on signs like this, please do me a favor. Think about Jesus! His forgiveness! His love! And remember the cross! Because that is the gospel! And that is what god is speaking! To you! To Texas! To America! To the entire world! That is what god is speaking, whether we hear it or not...

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