Call to Me
Call to Me
November 25, 2018
Last week, we paid a quick visit to the Book of Jonah which, I suggested to you, is a wonderful fictional story that is full of great truths. In fact, it’s really pretty funny. God calls Jonah as a prophet but he calls him to be the one to try to save the people whom Jonah hates the most—the people of Nineveh. Jonah considers that calling for a moment and runs like mad in the opposite direction. When he can’t run any further he jumps on a ship. Just as he is breathing a sigh of relief because surely he is out of God’s reach, a storm brews on the sea. He tells the sailors that the storm is because God is mad at him. He tells them their only choice is to throw him overboard—which, after expressing a few regrets, they do. Jonah, as anyone who wants to pick a fight with the Bible knows, is swallowed by a large creature and, essentially, thrown up onto the beach after three days—right near Nineveh.
Seeing Nineveh, Jonah has that realization that many of us may have had along the way with God—that we can run but we can’t hide, that if we feel God’s calling then we’ll need to face that calling whether we like it or not. Circumstances far less dramatic than a large creature sometimes seem to conspire in such a way that we are “delivered” to where we need to be to finally attend to the calling from which we have been running the whole time.
The really funny part of the story, though, is what happens next. If there is one thing you can depend on in the Bible, it is that the prophet’s job is going to be to deliver bad news and no one is going to listen. In real life, the prophets spoke the truth to power and those in power arrested them or had them beaten or thrown into some pit. In real life, the prophets spoke and average, everyday people could have cared less. Those with power kept abusing their power. Those who were too busy to be bothered with what was right in this life chose to ignore them. It was a thankless, awful job which almost every prophet tried hard not to accept.
So, back to Jonah. He tries to run from God’s calling. He ends up in Nineveh anyway. He sulks and stomps around and finally says, “Fine…I’ll deliver the darned message.” So, instead of yelling at the top of his lungs or smashing something like the real prophets, I like to imagine Jonah giving it his most halfhearted effort, mumbling in midst of the city: “By the way folks…you need to repent.” And to the utter shock of everyone familiar with the prophetic tradition, for the first time ever, the people listen—from the king on down. Everyone repents and changes their ways. The people who were godforsaken are now fully God’s people. And Jonah? Well…Jonah is furious: “I knew it… I knew this would happen…” You can practically hear him stomping his anger into the ground.
Again, it is funny because it never works that way. Jeremiah, the prophet from whom we heard a few verses this morning, walks the much more traditional prophet’s path, at least early on. God calls him. He argues with God about why he would make a terrible prophet. What Jeremiah must also have known is that this was a terrible time to be prophet. It is one thing to tell the people early on that someday, somehow if they don’t change their ways, there will be consequences. It is another thing to stand up and say, “Guess what, folks…It’s over.”
We have the prophets today who try to deliver the long-term message. They talk to us about the long-term consequences of choices that we all make, about how we use water and how much food we waste and how much waste we produce. They talk to us about copper mining which we immediately oppose until someone points out that that copper is a part of what makes our iPhones work (and we do want to change those out because a 10 must be one better than a 9, right?) As in the early days of our ancestors in faith, many of the truths that some prophets tell us require us to think farther into the future than next week or next year. The hard truth is that we human beings, for the most part, struggle mightily with thinking very far into the future at all.
I read a story not long ago about a man who is replanting white pines in Northern Minnesota. The area used to be full of those majestic trees. Those forests were logged. (Remember…we all use paper. We all build houses.) They were not replanted. So, this man has made it his personal mission to do so. What makes him really amazing is that he will never see the fruits of his work. Those trees grow slowly. His grandchildren’s children might one day play around those trees. Yet, this man just keeps on planting.
Personally, I am convinced that some of the biggest challenges that face us are really complex and would require us to make sacrifices now for the sake of a better future. I worry about climate change. Weather is becoming more extreme. As it does, ocean temperatures change. Some parts of the world endure more intense drought. Some parts of the world endure more fires. Some parts of the world go through torrential rains and flooding or hurricanes that are qualitatively different than we’ve seen before. Are you following the story of clean water and who has it and who doesn’t? Clean water may be the most precious commodity in the world in our lifetimes.
I care about the earth because without it we cannot live. I worry about our response to the things which threaten the earth because, for the most part, we want easy answers and quick fixes. Things have to get really bad before we change and by the time things get that bad, it may simply be too late. I pray that this will not be the case. I pray for the people who keep raising the questions…
Here’s the thing, though. Jeremiah wasn’t one of those long-term prophets. His job was the incredibly thankless task of not only telling the people what they didn’t want to hear but of telling them that the jig is up: “Pack your stuff, folks! We are about to be dragged into exile.” For most of what we know as the Book of Jeremiah, this is Jeremiah’s message. He has to tell a really thick-skinned, stone deaf group of people that they are about to lose their land. Even worse, he has to tell them that they are responsible for everything that is about to happen. You can’t live the way that they have lived—cheating each other and forgetting what it means to be a community and neglecting their faith altogether—and not have that eventually rot the nation at the core. Jeremiah screams this message. He takes an ox yoke and wears it around town to show people what the burden of exile is going to be like. One day, he takes a pot and says, essentially, “This is us.” And then, he smashes the pot to smithereens and says, “And that is what’s about to happen to us.”
You can imagine how well this message was received! Honestly, when we read it today, it is hard to swallow even now because there seems to be so little compassion mixed into the message. What we have to remember, though, is how utterly convinced the people were that nothing bad could ever happen to them. They were God’s chosen people! Who needs this negative-Nelly of a prophet?
It is only when the country’s fate is becoming clear to more than just Jeremiah that his tone changes. It’s not that there won’t be consequences. It’s not that the people won’t have to take responsibility for what they’ve done. It’s not that exile isn’t on the horizon. Rather, the turn is that such things will not be the final word. There is hope. There is the possibility of redemption. There is a promise that one day the people will return. (In fact, after having worn the yoke and smashed the pot, Jeremiah’s final symbolic act of prophecy is that he goes out and buys land—which is a crazy thing to do as the invaders are arriving—unless you are sure that one day you will be back.) Most importantly, Jeremiah eventually articulates the vision of a whole new relationship between God and the people, when every person will know God in his or her heart and when God will be a God of mercy and forgiveness, not judgment.
That new covenant is the relationship that is revealed in the birth and life and ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is the advent that is awaiting us in the weeks ahead. Yet, I’d like us to pause long enough to realize that we may need to hear that good news this year just as desperately as our ancestors did two thousand years ago…
It is time for us to come to grips with the fundamental challenges that we see across the full spectrum of our nation. We have just come through an election in which a huge number of American’s participated. Yet, the majority of Americans in a recent poll expressed doubts about the future of democracy. We are as divided as a people as I have ever seen us. We openly question one another’s patriotism and one another’s morality. The ground rules for how we speak to one another, even when we disagree, seem to have disappeared. We have more ways to connect with one another via all sorts of social media than anyone would have imagined 25 years ago and yet, we are is more isolated and lonely than ever before. The present state of our nation and our communities and our relationships is unsustainable.
What we need is hope. What we need is the possibility of reconciliation, of forgiveness, of reconnection, of a new sense of relationship. This turn for Jeremiah starts with a promise from God that if we call on God, God will answer and that answer will show us things that we never would have been able to figure out on our own. That answer is contained in the story we are preparing to tell.
When what is good is enfleshed, when we come to see God’s presence shining through the particular, when we come to understand that there is a way of being in the world that is as old as this world that can heal us one at a time until we finally heal the whole world, then the revolution begins. And it all starts in a manger…