“Say Among the Nations” (Psalm 96:10)

May 16, 2016

It is rather distressing to see Christians wringing their hands over the state of the nation. Facebook is populated by “Christian rants,” which reflect a state of anxiety, anger, and angst. Many live in fear.

Believers, however, worship God.

Perhaps the contrast is not apparent. Perhaps Christians are so filled with fear, it is difficult to see how faith-filled worship subverts fear and projects confidence.

It is not, however, a confidence in whether a particular political party will win an election, nor is it a confidence that a particular law will be enacted or reversed. It is not confidence in the political system.

It is confidence in God, which is reflected in Psalm 96.

The people of God gather to worship–to sing “a new song” (because God is always doing new things), and they invite “all the earth” (both nations and creation itself) to join in the chorus. In this worship, we declare the God’s glory and saving works, and we confess God is the “maker of heaven and earth.”

This worship bears witness and addresses to the nations (Psalm 96:10):

  • Yahweh, the Covenant Lord of Israel, is king.
  • What God has created remains secure.
  • God will establish justice among the peoples.

In other words, God is sovereign, God upholds the creation by God’s power, and God will set things right.

The future of creation and justice among the nations are not, ultimately, in human hands. This rests in God’s hands.

Worship, when we are gathered with others to honor and praise God, reorients our anxieties. In community, among fellow-believers, the lenses through which we see the world are corrected. Instead of wallowing in the turmoil that envelops the nations, we approach the face of God to see the enthroned Lord who assures us that the earth is secure and justice will prevail.

Amidst the anxiety and angst of the political season as well as the distress that fills the world with terror, violence, and economic pain, we affirm the sovereignty of God, the stability of the earth, and the certainty that God will set things right when God comes to judge the earth.

In response to this assurance, the heavens and the earth rejoice, the seas–and everything in it–celebrate with a roar, and the animals, who fill the fields, along with the trees of the forest sing for joy!

God is coming to judge the earth; not only to rescue humanity from its own chaos and injustice but also to rescue the earth from its bondage to decay.

Yahweh is king!

Yahweh secures the earth!

Yahweh will set things right!

This is the confidence in which believers rest, and, therefore, we are not afraid.


A Call to Worship in a Day of Fear (Psalm 33)

May 11, 2016

Psalm 33, a hymn of praise, expresses hope and joy in a time of fear.

Israel’s circumstances, whatever their precise character, generated a deep need for God’s help and protection (“shield”) in the face of death and famine (Psalm 33:19-20). This fear was possibly occasioned by the threat of war or battle (Psalm 33:16-17).

Given recent terror attacks and the threat of ISIS, fear abounds. The US political situation has also generated fear among many. Some respond with threats; others respond with hate. Still others respond with despair and worry. Psalm 33 calls for worship.

The Psalmist responds to Israel’s dire situation with a call to joyful praise. This is appropriate for the people of God who are characterized by a rightful trust in Yahweh (Psalm 33:1, 21-22) and place their hope in their Creator and Redeemer.

The Psalm opens with five imperatives, each a different verb (Psalm 33:1-3).  Each one is a call to worship because “praise” (tehilla) adorns and befits God’s people, even amidst their worst fears.

  • Sing joyfully in Yahweh (v. 1)
  • Give thanks to Yahweh with the lyre (v. 2)
  • Sing praise to Yahweh with the harp (v. 2)
  • Sing a new song to Yahweh (v. 3)
  • Play music skillfully on the strings with loud shouts (v. 3)

While fear seems the most prudent response to difficult circumstances–and we all experience such fear, the Psalmist calls Israel to worship.

Why this call to worship when we are surrounded by fear? Psalm 33 explains.

We worship because….

  • The word of Yahweh is upright, and all Yahweh’s “doing” (making) is done in faithfulness (Psalm 33:4-9).
  • The plans of Yahweh stand forever, and Yahweh’s “heart-thoughts” extend to all generations (Psalm 33:10-12).
  • The eye of Yahweh is set upon those who trust and hope in Yahweh’s steadfast love (Psalm 33:13-19).

We worship, even in times of fear, because Yahweh’s word is powerful and faithful, Yahweh’s intentions are permanent, and Yahweh’s care is interminable.”

First, the word of Yahweh” does not describe inscripturated propositions. The Psalmist is not talking about the Torah, though other Psalms do. Instead, the “word of Yahweh” is God’s active presence as Creator and Redeemer.  The “word of Yahweh” here is God’s performative speech

Performative speech actualizes something. For example, when the officiant says, “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” that language actualizes the union’s reality. The language has power; it does something.

God speaks, and it is done. What God speaks is done, and what is done is established as a firm, immovable rock. What God does is characterized by faithfulness (Psalm 33:4) and it stands (Psalm 33:9).

The word of Yahweh, then, is an active, living voice which actualizes what God intends, and nothing can resist it. God made the heavens and gathered the waters. God’s speech acts actualized the heavens and the earth. These words are the breath of God, which yield life, order, justice, and righteousness.

This creative work, and the redemptive work in the Exodus which this language also echoes (cf. Exodus 14:31; 15:6-8), arises from God’s love for righteousness and justice (Psalm 33:5). The divine goal, expressed as a confident reality in hopeful worship, is to fill “the earth” with “Yahweh’s steadfast love” (Psalm 33:5).

Israel worships Yahweh because the word of Yahweh accomplishes what it speaks by its powerful love.

We do not fear because the living word of God effects God’s righteousness and fills the earth with God’s steadfast love.

In the light of this, “let all the earth fear Yahweh” because Yahweh’s love is universal and Yahweh’s work is awe-inspiring.

Second, the plan of Yahweh is permanent. Yahweh’s intentions are evident to Israel; every generation knows what Yahweh plans will happen. Nothing can frustrate Yahweh’s goal, Yahweh’s “thoughts” (Psalm 33:11).

The nations believe they control their own destiny. They use their power to secure their own ends. What the nations plan, however, is no match for Yahweh’s plan. Yahweh “breaks” and “frustrates” the “plan of the nations.”

Whatever it may seem, however it may appear, the plans of the nations are subservient to the “counsel of Yahweh,” Yahweh’s “heart-thoughts.” Ultimately, Yahweh’s intentions are realized no matter what the nations may do. God is sovereign over the nations.

When fear pervades a people, they have lost their trust in God’s sovereignty. When worship fills our hearts, we trust in God’s powerful, redemptive, and loving work.

This is our blessedness. When we confess Yahweh as our God, we confess God’s election. Yahweh loved us, and Yahweh chose us, and we are Yahweh’s inheritance or heritage (Psalm 33:12).

This is not simply the confession of Israel. It is, in fact, the hope of the nations. One day, Isaiah promises, even Egypt and Assyria will be a “blessing in the midst of the earth,” and Yahweh will call them “my people” and “my heritage” (Isaiah 19:24-25).

Consequently, we do not fear because God’s intent is to bless all the nations so that the whole earth becomes Yahweh’s inheritance.

Third, the eye of Yahweh covers the earth to deliver from death those who hope in Yahweh’s steadfast love (Psalm 33:18-19).

This “eye” is not passive but active. Yahweh is no mere observer. On the contrary, the eye of Yahweh (Psalm 33:13-15):

  • looks down from heaven
  • sees all humankind
  • watches all the inhabitants of the earth
  • forms every human heart
  • discerns every one of their deeds

In other words, Yahweh is intimately engaged with human hearts and lives. Yahweh “forms” hearts just as Yahweh “formed” adam from the ground in Genesis 2:7 (same Hebrew term). Further, God “understands” or “discerns” humanity’s deeds. God not only knows what is going on, but God also discerningly considers what humanity does. God is attentive–shaping human hearts and probing their deeds.

This is a function of God’s sovereignty since Yahweh is enthroned above the earth from where Yahweh “watches” and “forms” all humanity.  The repetitive use of “all” (kal), used three times in Psalm 33:13-15, underscores the universal reach of God’s work.

Consequently, no king, army, warrior, or war horse can “save” by its own “great might” (Psalm 33:16-17). This once again echoes the Exodus narrative where no king or warrior saved Israel from Egypt’s mighty army. Instead, Yahweh redeemed Israel and delivered her from death.

The Yahweh of the Exodus is still Israel’s God, and Yahweh will yet deliver those who “fear him” and “hope in his steadfast love” (Psalm 33:18).

Therefore, we do not fear because Yahweh reigns over the earth, forms human hearts, and acts to redeem those who trust in God’s love.

We are not afraid because we know and have experienced God’s redemptive love in our lives, and we trust the one who has loved us.

The Psalmist dispels fear through worship because worship calls us into God’s story.

  • Yahweh’s word is powerful and actualizes what it commands.
  • Yahweh’s plan is firm and immovable.
  • Yahweh’s eye is squarely upon us for our redemption.

As a result, we “wait for Yahweh” because our God is our “help and shield” (Psalm 33:20).

We even learn to rejoice in the middle of fearful circumstances “because we trust in Yahweh’s holy name” (Psalm 33:21).

This patient endurance (“waiting”) and hopeful worship spawns a wish-prayer. It is the only word addressed to Yahweh in the whole Psalm. It functions like a blessing, a benediction, or a corporate response from the assembly. It is a prayer we should make our own.

Let your steadfast love, O Yahweh, be upon us, even as we hope in you.

Amen.

 


Four Means of Grace (Acts 2:42)

April 23, 2016

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

Acts 2:42, NRSV.

harding-profile“Our greatest trouble now is, it seems to me, a vast unconverted membership. A very large percent of the church members among us seem to have very poor conception of what a Christian ought to be. They are brought into the church during these high-pressure protracted meetings, and they prove to be a curse instead of a blessing. They neglect prayer, the reading of the Bible, and the Lord’s day meetings, and, of course, they fail to do good day by day as they should. Twelve years of continuous travel among the churches have forced me to the sad conclusion that a very small number of the nominal Christians are worthy of the name.”

James A. Harding, Gospel Advocate (1887) [1]

As a summary of early Christian steadfastness, Acts 2:42 has served as a influential reference point in the Believer’s Church tradition, and it has been especially important to the Stone-Campbell Movement. As early as the 1830s some even regarded it as the biblical “order of worship.” Others simply emphasized its fundamental orientation. James A. Harding, co-founder of Lipscomb University and namesake of Harding University, called them “means of grace,” that is, four spiritual disciplines that form believers into the image of Christ.

Harding identified the four as (1) reading and studying the Bible, (2) ministering to others (especially the poor) as we share (“fellowship”) our resources, (3) participating in the Lord’s day meeting at the Lord’s table as a community, and (4) habitual prayer.[2] Sometimes Harding identifies these with the Lord’s Day assembly or communal gatherings but generally understood Bible study, missional engagement with the poor, and prayer as daily spiritual disciplines. According to Harding, believers should adopt a kind of rule of life which involves daily Bible reading, “doing good” daily as they have opportunity, and pray every morning, noon, afternoon, and evening.

But these are no mere duties. Rather, they are “four great means of grace—appointed means by which God dynamically acts among, in, and through the people of God.[3] They are not modes of human self-reliance but means of divine transformation by which God graciously sanctifies believers. They are spiritual disciplines through which God conforms believers to the image of Christ.

Harding stressed how “the life of a successful Christian is a continual growth in purity, a constant changing into a complete likeness to Christ.”[4] To “grow more and more into the likeness of Christ” should be the Christian’s “greatest” desire. [5] In other words, Harding believed discipleship was the central dimension of practicing the kingdom of God. Consequently, one of the dangers of revivalism (“protracted meetings”) was the immediate interest in a larger number of conversions where the main concern was “escaping hell and getting into heaven” as opposed to discipling people to lead “lives of absolute consecration to the Lord.” As a result, these “converts are much more anxious to be saved than they are to follow Christ.”[6]

Harding’s antidote recommended the “four habits” of Acts 2:42 as expressions of both communal and personal piety. Whoever neglects them will falter and their “falling away is sure.”[7] But if one will pursue these spiritual practices, “he will surely abide in Christ. These four are god’s means of grace to transform a poor, frail, sinful human being into the likeness of Christ.” Whoever “faithfully uses these means unto the end of life can not be lost.” Specifically, in response to the question, “Will God hold us responsible for little mistakes?” Harding answered: God “holds nothing against us” whether we sinned “in ignorance, weakness or willfulness” as long as we live in Christ as people who faithfully practice these spiritual disciplines with a heart that seeks God.[8]

God in Christ through the Spirit is graciously active through these communal and personal faith-practices. God actively transforms believers into God’s own image, and believers who pursue these gifts of grace will experience transformation by divine power rather than by human effort.

**This is adapted from John Mark Hicks and Bobby Valentine, Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding (Abilene: Leafwood Press, 2006), 75-77. One chapter is devoted to each of these means of grace.

[1]Harding, “Scraps,” Gospel Advocate 27 (9 February 1887), 88.

[2]Harding, “Questions Concerning the Way to Heaven,” The Way 4 (12 February 1903), 370.

[3]Harding, “Questions and Answers,” The Way 4 (17 July 1902), 123.

[4]Harding, “Scraps,” The Way 5 (23 July 1903), 735.

[5]Harding, “Scraps,” The Way 5 (15 October 1903), 945.

[6]Harding, “About Protracted Meetings,” Gospel Advocate 27 (14 September 1887), 588.

[7]Harding, “Ira C. Moore on the Validity of Baptism,” Christian Leader and the Way 23 (18 May 1909), 8.

[8]Harding, “Scraps,” The Way 4 (26 February 1903), 401-2.


What Does it Mean to Eat “Unworthily”? (1 Corinthians 11:29)

April 22, 2016

What does it mean to eat and drink “worthily”?

The church has variously interpreted the term “worthily.” A primary misunderstanding has been to read the term as an adjective rather than an adverb. Some believe they must be “worthy” to approach the supper, that is, they must have lived a pure, exemplary life before coming to the table. Indeed, some church traditions have emphasized the need for extensive introspective examination or ecclesial examination (e.g., examination by a Pastor) before coming to the table, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. It can be a good practice. Nevertheless, it may unintentionally create a culture where many refuse to eat the supper because they feel “unworthy” due to their weaknesses or they may not come to the table unless they receive sanction or absolution from another.

But the word Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 11:29 is “unworthily” or “in an unworthy manner.” The adverb describes the way in which a person eats; it does not describe  the status of the person who is eating. In one sense, everyone is unworthy to approach the table. No one deserves to sit at the king’s table. Everyone should approach the table with humility and gratitude, and we must never approach the table out of a sense of our own worthiness. We are not worthy, if we mean by that we have secured a place at the table because of our goodness.

Unfortunately, this has led many people to stay away from the table because they are unworthy rather than approaching the table under God’s grace and mercy. Luther’s words are particularly helpful in this connection (and many Protestant traditions often later functioned like Luther describes as “under the pope”):

But suppose you say, “What if I feel that I am unfit?” Answer: This also is my temptation, especially inherited from the old order under the pope when we tortured ourselves to become so perfectly pure that God might not find the least blemish in us. Because of this we became so timid that everyone was thrown into consternation, saying, “Alas, I am not worthy!” Then nature and reason begin to contrast our unworthiness with this great and precious blessing, and it appears like a dark lantern in contrast to the bright sun, or as dung in contrast to jewels. Because nature and reason see this, such people refuse to go to the sacrament and wait until they become prepared, until one week passes into another and one half year into yet another. If you choose to fix your eye on how good and pure your are, to work toward the time when nothing will prick your conscience you will never go…He who earnestly desires grace and consolation should compel himself to go and allow no one to deter him, saying, “I would really like to be worthy, but I come not on account of any worthiness of mine, but on account of thy Word, because thou hast commanded it and I want to be thy disciple, no matter how insignificant my worthiness”…If you are heavy-laden and feel your weakness, go joyfully to the sacrament and receive refreshment, comfort and strength.[1]

When we feel unworthy or despair over our “worthlessness,” this is the moment to run to the table to receive grace, mercy, and encouragement. We don’t stay away from the table but we run to it when we are burdened with guilt and grief.

At the same time, we should eat and drink “worthily.” The specific context in 1 Corinthians 11 is the divisive character of the assembly. The rich are eating without the poor. The assembly is divided by socio-economic factors. The Corinthians ate “unworthily” when they ate in groups opposed to each other or divided from each other. Paul does not suggest some kind of private introspection as a resolution to this problem. On the contrary, eating “worthily” is a communal concern. The church eats and drinks “worthily” when it eats and drinks as one body.

Unfortunately, some think “unworthily” refers to the private thoughts of the individual. Believers eat and drink “unworthily” when they do not, for example, sufficiently concentrate on the death of Christ, or they do not “discern” the body of Christ in the bread, or they do not meditate in silence, or they let their mind wander during the passing of the elements, or they do not reflect on their sins and ask God’s forgiveness. In other words, “unworthily” becomes a bottomless pit into which we can throw anything that we think is inappropriate during the Lord’s supper.

We define “unworthily,” then, by our preconceived ideas of what we think the supper is. This move means we must first have a good theological understanding of the supper before we decide how “unworthily” might be applied in our contemporary setting. Thus, if we think the supper is a silent, private, meditative act of piety, then we would eat “unworthily” if we acted in a way that violated that piety (including “singing during the Lord’s Supper,” “talking during the Supper,” or engaging in communal prayer or reading during the Supper).

Contextually,  the emphasis of “unworthily” is communal. It eats the supper in a way that denies the gospel which the table is to proclaim. To eat “unworthily” is to eat in a way that undermines the gospel. In Corinth, they denied the gospel through their economic factions where the rich ate before and without the poor. They also denied the gospel by sitting at two tables—the table of demons and the table of the Lord (1 Corinthians 10:14-22). Though they ate at the table of the Lord, they denied the gospel through their immorality and idolatry.

“Unworthily,” then, is not a matter of private psyche at the moment we bite down on the bread. The consequence of that perspective is that we oppress ourselves with interminable questions (“Am I thinking about the death of Christ?” “Am I too distracted?” “Did I pray?” “Should I read a scripture?” “Did I drink damnation to myself because I had to pay attention to my children rather than the bread?” “Can I pray with a friend during the Supper?” “Can I speak with the person next to me about what I am experiencing in the Supper?” “Can we sing during the Supper?”).

Rather, it is about the manner of eating in relation to the community and our lifestyle. Do we eat with a double mind? Do we eat in commitment to the Lordship of Jesus as his disciples? Do we eat with prejudice and bias against another group within the church (racial or socio-economic)? Do we eat knowing we will pursue our own interests on Monday through Saturday? Do we eat on Sunday knowing we will deny the gospel through our lifestyle on Monday by cheating in our business, committing adultery, or denying justice to minorities? To eat “unworthily” in such way is to eat and drink condemnation.

Fundamentally, to eat “worthily” is similar to living “worthily” (Philippians 1:27). When we live, we must live out and embody gospel values as disciples of Jesus. When we eat, we must eat in a way that embodies gospel values as disciples of Jesus. The table must reflect the gospel; it must embody the character of its host. When we sit at the table in a way that denies the gospel, we eat “unworthily.” We eat “worthily” when we embody thegospel at the table, and at the table we are received by God’s gracious host, Jesus the Messiah and we experience the communion of the Holy Spirit as we eat and drink with Jesus at table in the presence of the Father.

[1] Martin Luther, “Large Catechism,” in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. and ed. by Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 471.

**Adapted from John Mark Hicks, Come to the Table (Leafwood Press, 2001)**


I am Peter (John 21:15-19)

April 17, 2016

[Listen to the sermon here, from April 17, 2016]

Shame. Guilt. Grief.

I know those feelings. I’ve been overwhelmed by them at times. They have felt like a ton of bricks on my chest, and I couldn’t breathe.

I’m feeling them now. Sitting with Jesus on the beach, eating the fish he grilled and the bread he baked, I keep staring at the charcoal fire. Its burning my eyes and scorching my heart.

When Jesus was arrested, I followed him. John had connections in the household of the High Priest, by which we were able to gain entrance to its courtyard. I will never forget that courtyard. Even as I entered it, the servant girl recognized me and said, “You are one of them, aren’t you? You are one of Jesus’s friends.” And I said, “No, I don’t know him.” John looked at me, and I looked at the ground. What came over me? Why would I deny Jesus? It sort of just happened, and the words came out of my mouth before I could grab hold of them and stuff them back in. I never thought I would do that, but I did.

I moved over to the fire to keep warm but also to get closer to what was going on. I thought I might be able to see or hear something about Jesus. Gathered around the charcoal fire, they recognized me. Someone said, “You are one of his disciples. You are one of his friends!” “No,” I answered, “I am not!” I don’t think they believed me, and I didn’t even believe myself. Why am I denying I know Jesus? What is happening to me? Where is this coming from?

Then a relative of Malchus, a servant of the High Priest, whose ear I had severed in the Garden, recognized me. “Yes, you are one of his disciples! You were in the Garden; you tried to kill Malchus.” “No,” I yelled, “that was not me. I was not in the Garden! I don’t even know this Jesus.”

And then the rooster crowed, and I hit the wall. I came to myself and recognized what I had done. I left the courtyard and cried my eyes dry. I hated myself; I hated what I did. How could I ever forgive myself? How could Jesus ever forgive me?

The charcoal fire on the beach flooded my soul with those horrible, horrendous memories. I wish I could make them go away. I want a “do-over,” but that don’t exist. It is hanging out there in the air, at least that is how I feel. It is the elephant in the room at our breakfast table. And no one is saying anything about it, not even John.

Then Jesus looked at me. I though to myself, “Oh, no, here it comes! I don’t know what to expect. What will he say?”

The first words out of his mouth crushed me! “Simon, son of John,” he said. He did not say “Peter” but “Simon, son of John.” When we first met on these same shores several years ago, he called my name, “Simon, son of John.” But then he renamed me, “Cephas” (“Peter” in Greek), which means “Rock.” He called me a “Rock,” but not today.

This not-so-subtle address forced me to face myself. I thought of myself of a “Rock” among the disciples. I had a heroic self-image laced with arrogance and impetuousness. I thought my role to play the hero, but several nights ago I learned I was no hero. It was a façade, an illusion. I’m no hero; I have feet of clay.

I was so startled by the address that I almost did not hear the question. “Simon, son of John, do you love (agapas) me more than these other disciples?” I looked around the fire at my fellow disciples and friends, including John. There was no way I could say I love Jesus more than them. I knew myself well enough to know that. At least the arrogance was gone…at least for the moment.

Several weeks earlier I would have anointed myself the greatest. I boasted I would follow Jesus whenever he went. I told him in front of all the disciples that I would die for him. I thought I loved him more than the others. But no longer. I will not overstep this time.

In fact, I realized the question is confrontational. Jesus knows the contrast. He knows what I did. He forced me to face myself, to look at myself in the moment, and to take inventory. Who I am? Whom do I love?

I responded, “Yes, Lord, I love (philo) you,” but I dropped the comparsion. And I made one other adjustment to Jesus’s question. While Jesus asked, “Do you love (agapas) me?” I responded, “I love (philo) you.” I did not mean I loved Jesus less as if agapao is a greater or more devout love than phileo. “Yes,” I said, “I agapao you but I also phileo you.” In effect, I said, “I dearly love you,” or “I love you as a friend.”

Why did I change the verb? I wanted to stress to Jesus how deep my love was. I wanted to assure him that now I would die for him.

Several weeks ago, when we were sitting at the table with Jesus, he called us his “friends” (philous) rather than his servants. He told us there is no “greater love (agapen) than this than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (philous). Jesus asked me if if Ioved him, and I told him I would die for him.

Then Jesus startled me. “Feed my lambs,” he said. What? I couldn’t imagine feeding lambs; I couldn’t imagine participating in your flock. I was so ashamed and so grieved; I only wanted to sit in the back unobserved and unnoticed. I feel so unworthy to feed Jesus’s lambs. And I remembered how several months ago Jesus told us a good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The invitation stung me.

Jesus did not let up. He asked another question. This time he dropped the comparison, and the question became more pointed and more direct. “Simon, son of John, do you love (agapas) me at all?” It is almost as if he was asking me if I have ever loved him, and I understood why he asked. I failed him in the most crucial moment of my life and his. In the crucible I showed myself faithless. Do I even love Jesus at all much less love him more than the other disciples?

Jesus was probing me. He was performing a kind of heart surgery on me. Do I know myself as Jesus knows me? When I denied Jesus, I loved myself, and maybe that is still true.

But I responded, “Yes, most certainly, Lord; you know I love (philo) you. I love you dearly, as a friend, and I will die for you, Lord.”

Again, once again, Jesus invited me into his community; he invited to participate. He said, “Tend my sheep.” I can’t even go there now. That seems so distant to me; I feel so unworthy of such a charge.

Then, for a third time—yes, a third time, Jesus asked another question, a different question. Every question has been different. This time he changed the verb. He shifted from agapas to phileis. He asked the same question but this time used my language. “Simon, son of John, do you love me dearly? Do you love me as a friend for whom you would die?”

The question cut me to the heart. It grieved me. The question hurt but not because it was a bad question. It hurt because I knew my own actions had occasioned the inquiry. My heart rate tripled, burdened with anxiety and grief. I wish I could change the past. I wish I had a “do-over.”

“Lord,” I responded, “you know everything—you know my heart now just as you knew it on the night I denied you. You know I love you. You know I will die for you.” I know Jesus knows. He knew my heart several weeks ago, and he knows my heart now.

In all these questions, Jesus’s voice was strong and stern. I knew Jesus was confronting me with my sin, but I also knew he was inviting me into his community again. Again, he welcomed me to “feed his sheep,” to live as a shepherd among his flock. Again, I recoiled.

But then it dawned on me what Jesus was doing. Jesus was not torturing me or rubbing it in. The three questions paralleled my three denials. Jesus gave me the opportunity to reverse my denials as a way of repairing my past. He gave me a “do-over.” He walked me through a kind of repair therapy, moral repair. I re-enacted my denial. Jesus helped me repair my past.

With each question, I looked my past in the eye and acknowledged what I had done. With each question, Jesus embraced me in the present. With each question, Jesus offered me a new future.

Jesus walked me through a process of moral repair, a kind of spiritual therapy where I looked in the mirror and faced myself. Through that confrontation, I confessed my failure, recognized my woundedness, and Jesus reoriented my life toward healing.

Jesus did not say to me, “Its okay; it didn’t matter. No worries.” Just the opposite. I had to face what I had done, and I had to see myself for truly who I was. Even as I professed my love for Jesus, I tasted the bitter fruit of the denial. I recognized my false self, my heroic self-image, and I reached out for my authentic self in professing my love for Jesus.

This did not erase my past. It really happened; it’s not going away. But the grace Jesus offered in this moment—as painful as it was to hear it and embrace it—reframed my past. It is like it rewired my experience. I still acknowledge the past, but I now see it through the lens of grace and how Jesus calls me into a new future. The past is no longer debilitating; the shame is no longer incapacitating. I have a future with Jesus.

Jesus confronted me in order to embrace me, and he embraced me to offer a new future, a future without shame, guilt, and grief over my past.

And Jesus really does know me. He knows I will face my next crucible without wavering. When I am old, someone will bind my hands and take me where I do not want to go. Jesus knows when that day comes I will die for him.

Jesus knows my sin, and he knows my love for him. He welcomed me with the invitation I longed to hear, “Follow me.”

My name is John Mark Hicks, a disciple of Jesus. I am Peter….and so are you.

 

John 21:15-19: An Amplified Reading

When Jesus and his disciples had finished breakfast, Jesus asked Simon Peter (intentionally avoiding calling him the “rock,” which he wasn’t): “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these other disciples?” Peter, recognizing his allusion to his previous insistence on dying with Jesus and his subsequent denial, responded, “Yes, certainly, Lord; you know I love you dearly. I will give my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Feed my lambs; care for my little ones as a good shepherd.”

Then again, a second time Jesus looked at Peter and asked (again without calling him the “rock”), “Simon, son of John, do you love me at all?” Peter, feeling the hurt of his recent failure to go to the cross with Jesus, responded, “Yes, certainly, Lord; you know I love you dearly. I will give my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Tend my sheep; protect my people with your life as a good shepherd.”

Then Jesus asked a third time (without calling him the “rock”), “Simon, son of John, do you love me enough to lay down your life for me?” Peter, deeply grieved by Jesus’s persistent questioning for the third time, responded, “Lord, you know everything—you know my heart now just as you knew it on the night I denied you. You know I love you dearly. You know I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Feed my sheep; care for my people as a good shepherd.”

Jesus continued, “You can be certain of this, when you were younger, you fastened your own belt and went wherever you wanted. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not want to go.”

[Note: Jesus said this because he knew Peter would, one day, die for him as a martyr. Jesus knew Peter loved him.]

After he said this, Jesus said to Peter: “Follow me—follow me even to a cross. I know you love me dearly and I know you will lay down your life for my sheep.”


Resurrection Sunday: The Emmaus Experience (Luke 24:35)

March 27, 2016

On Resurrection Day, almost two thousand years ago, two disciples were transformed by their experience of the risen Messiah at a table in Emmaus.

While walking to Emmaus, they heard the story of a Messiah who must first suffer and then enter glory. The stranger who walked with them expounded Scripture, and their hearts burned as they saw the story of God in new ways. As the Scriptures were opened, so were their hearts.

At a table in Emmaus, on that resurrection day, the risen Messiah was “made known” to these disciples “in the breaking of the bread.” We know from reading Acts (2:42, 46; 20:7, 11) “the breaking of bread” continued as an ongoing table experience among the followers of Jesus, Israel’s Messiah.

What happened in the “breaking of the bread?” What continues to happen “in the breaking of the bread?”

The living Messiah is “made known” within the community of disciples. When disciples of Jesus are gathered around the table, Jesus is present, and—more than present—Jesus is revealed.

Jesus said as much earlier in Luke:

  • “This is my body” and
  • “This cup…is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:19-20).

Of course, the problem is the meaning of “is”? It depends on what the meaning of “is” is, right?

Paul expands the “is” in 1 Corinthians 10:16: “is it [the breaking of the bread] not a sharing in the body of Christ” or “is it [the cup] not a sharing in the blood of Christ?” When we eat the bread and drink the cup, we participate, share in the blessing of, and commune with the one who gave himself for us. We share in the benefits of God’s work in Christ; we experience the reality the body and blood of Jesus effects. We experience peace with God, and at the table we are not only assured of God’s grace but God also gives grace there.

Luke also provides his own explanation in Luke 24:35. At the table, the living Jesus is “revealed” or “made known.”

What exactly does that mean? I think the Eastern Orthodox theologian Schmemann illuminates this a bit (For the Life of the World, 142).

In the early tradition, and this is of paramount importance, the relationship between the sign in the symbol (A) and that which it signifies (B) is neither a merely semantic one (A means B), nor causal (A is the cause of B), nor representative (A represents B). We called this relationship an epiphany. “A is B” means that the whole of A expresses, communicates, reveals, manifests the reality of B (although not necessarily the whole of it) without, however, losing its own ontological reality, without being dissolved in another “res” [another “thing,” JMH]. But it was precisely this relationship between the A and the B, between the sign and the signified, that was changed. Because of the reduction of knowledge to rational or discursive knowledge there appears between A and B a hiatus. The symbol may still be means of knowledge but, as all knowledge, it is knowledge about and knowledge of. It can be a revelation about “res” but not the epiphany of the “res” itself. A can mean B, or represent it, or even in certain instances, be the “cause” of its presence; but A is no longer viewed as the very means of “participation” in B. Knowledge and participation are now two different realities, two different orders.

The bread and wine (the signs) remain bread and wine—their nature as bread and wine does not change. The relationship between the sign (bread and wine) and the thing signified (body and blood) is not merely symbolic or representative, but neither is it a change of nature or ontology (such that the bread becomes the body or the wine becomes the blood as different substance so that the bread and wine are annihilated).

Instead, the bread and wine become a means by which the living Christ is revealed. It is an “epiphany,” which “expresses, communicates, reveals, [and] manifests the reality” of the living Christ in the midst of the community. The table becomes more than a cognitive remembrance where we learn something about Christ. The table becomes a means by which we experience the living Christ and participate in the reality of the new creation, inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus.

At the table, Jesus reveals the future, we remember the future, and we experience the future. The table is an “ephipany”—we see the future! Death will not win; Christ has already won!

On Easter Sunday, like Resurrection Day itself, disciples all around the world gather around a table, and there the living Christ is “made known.” We not only learn about Christ, we experience Christ. We not only learn about the new creation inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus, we taste it!

O Happy Day—the day God announced the future of the world through the resurrection of Jesus.

O Happy Day—the day we gather at the table to taste that future!

Blessed be the name of the Lord, who did not leave us in the dust of death but has given us new life through Jesus, who is our life.

 


“I Thirst” (John 19:38)

March 26, 2016

Brief words often speak volumes. They say so much, and no other words are needed. “I thirst” is exactly that.

While, at first, we may think this is primarily about physical thirst—and we should not discount that dimension, the words are more about the situation in which Jesus finds himself.

“I thirst” is the cry of several lament Psalms in the Hebrew prayer book.

• “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Psalm 42:2).
• Enemies gave righteous sufferers “poison for food and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” (Psalm 69:21).
• “My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death” (Psalm 22:15).

This language, in one respect, arises out of isolation and desolation. The righteous sufferer agonizes over the reality of death and is disheartened by the loss of friendships.

And it is also  a cry for God to quench the thirst of the sufferer. It is not so much a thirst for water as it is a thirst for God. In effect, this is another way of calling upon God for help, seeking God in the midst of suffering. It is a cry for God’s presence; it is John’s version of the cry of dereliction, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Today is “Holy Saturday.” On this day, Jesus lies in a tomb, the disciples are hiding, and Israel’s hope in this Messiah is gone. All seems lost.

“I thirst” is the cry of a dying Messiah. It is the cry of disciples who have lost hope. It is, often, our cry. We cry, “we thirst,” when we sense God’s absence in the midst of our experiences of terror, death, and injustice.

Where are you, God? We thirst for the living God. Where is our hope?

The cry, “I thirst,” receives a divine response on Sunday, but we must endure “Holy Saturday” before Sunday comes.

We endure it, in part, by crying with Jesus and the Psalmists, “I thirst.”


Jesus Wept (John 11:35)

February 8, 2016

[Hear this sermon at here.]

When Jesus saw Mary wailing in grief and saw the others with her—both men and women—visibly sobbing, a deep anger welled up within his spirit, and he roused himself and asked them, “Where have you laid him?” They responded, “Come and see.” Then Jesus burst into tears. As a result, the people present said, “See how much he loved him!” But some of them complained. “Could not this man who healed a blind man also have kept Lazarus from dying?”

 John 11:33-37 (my translation)

Angry. Agitated. Sad.

Jesus felt all those emotions when he encountered death and deep grief among his close friends.

“Lazarus is sick” is the way the story opens (John 11:1). The sisters, Mary and Maratha, send for Jesus because they know Jesus can heal their brother, and they have every reason to believe Jesus will come quickly because Lazarus is a dear friend whom Jesus loved. Rather than rushing to his aide, Jesus lingered for two days and arrived four days after Lazarus died.

His delay is deliberate. The death of Lazarus will serve a greater purpose. If Jesus had arrived earlier to heal the sickness, he would only confirmed his reputation as a healer. Jesus wants them to see something more; he wants his disciples to believe (John 11:14).

But believe what? Not that Jesus was a miracle-worker. More than that. He wanted them to believe something much deeper and more profound.

As Jesus arrives in Bethany, Martha runs out to meet him. She voices what Jesus has already discussed with his disciples. If he had arrived earlier, Lazarus would not have died.

Now we hear the profound truth Jesus wants his disciples and Martha to believe:

“I am the resurrection and the life.”

“Martha,” Jesus asks, “do you believe this?” Disciples, do you believe this? Church, do you believe this?

This is why Jesus did not rush to heal Lazarus. He had healed the blind, the lame, and the diseased. He had even cast out demons. Such healings, wondrous as they are, do not threaten death. Death still reigns, and life itself is enslaved by it.

But Jesus is the “resurrection and the life.” He is the great liberator who frees us from the bondage of death. He brings life and conquers death.

Church, do you believe this?

Martha retrieves Mary, and Mary expresses the same sentiment as the disciples and her sister, “if only you had been here, Lazarus would not have died” (John 11:32). For the third time Jesus hears the misgiving, even an implied complaint. We can hear in her voice, “Why didn’t you come? Why weren’t you here to heal my brother and your friend?”

When Jesus saw Mary wailing in grief and saw the others with her—both men and women—visibly sobbing, a deep anger welled up within his spirit, and he roused himself and asked them, “Where have you laid him?” They responded, “Come and see.” Then Jesus burst into tears. As a result, the people present said, “See how much he loved him!” But some of them complained. “Could not this man who healed a blind man also have kept Lazarus from dying?”

Angry. Agitated. Sad.

Jesus sees Mary’s grief, and he experiences the communal grief that surrounds her. Jesus enters into a grieving community. He has walked into a funeral home where grieving family and friends have gathered.

And he is angry.

Jesus is greatly disturbed in his spirit. The Greek term (embrimaomai) is an intense one. It describes the snorting of a horse in battle, or a personal scolding (Mark 14:5) as well as stern rebukes (Matthew 9:30; Mark 1:43). The word is about anger rather than compassion. The point is not sentimentality but emotional irritation. Jesus is on the verge of rage; he is upset, emotionally disturbed.

He is not annoyed by their grief as such. Jesus himself will also weep. Perhaps he is angered by the reality of death itself. He may even be angry with himself as if he “rebuked himself.” If he had come earlier, Lazarus would not have died and he would have spared this whole community such grief. Jesus is angry about the situation.

Jesus is annoyed by what death brings, angry at how death rules humanity, and recognizes that he opened the door for this grief in the case of Lazarus.

And he is agitated.

Literally, “Jesus stirred himself.” He troubled himself. It is the same language as in John 5:7 where an angel stirred the waters, and it is the same language that describes troubled hearts (John 13:21; 14:27). Jesus is disturbed, but determined. He turns to his firm purpose as he asks where they laid him. Jesus has stirred himself to action; he is determined to face the reality of death and act.

And he is sad.

Hearing the invitation to the grave site, Jesus burst into tears. It is similar to bursting into tears when one sees the grave of a loved one or the first time you see them in the casket.

We don’t want to sentimentalize his emotions here—they are raw, real, and deep! There are visible tears. Jesus weeps openly, visibly—real tears. The verb comes from the same root for “tears.” We might say Jesus sobbed.

Even though he knows what he has determined to do, and he knows the raising of Lazarus from the dead will reveal the glory of God, he is nevertheless still sad. The grieving community affects him, and the trauma of Lazarus’s own death grieves him. Jesus does not minimize the bitterness of death. He feels the sadness.

And he raises Lazarus from the dead.

Yes, Jesus could have healed Lazarus before he died, but the death of Lazarus serves the glory of God. It reveals Jesus as the “resurrection and the life.” It bears witness to the reality that life has come into the world, and this life overcomes death and will ultimately release the creation from its bondage to death.

Jesus asks, “Do you believe?”

Nevertheless, until that day, human beings live with death. Death and chaos fill our lives, and we wonder—at times—how to respond, especially since we also have a great hope.

Jesus shows the way: anger, agitation, and sadness.

  • We might express a holy anger against humanity’s great enemy, death. Sometimes we are angry with ourselves, sometimes with the one who died, and sometimes with God. We lament and ask, “Why?” Anger is good.
  • We face the reality of death with a determination to live in its shadow. Lean into grief, walk through it, and head towards the light. It is good to “stir ourselves” to action.
  • We weep, grieved by the reality of death and how it affects humanity. Tears are good; they are cleansing. Let’em flow.

And….we believe:  Jesus is the resurrection and the life!

“Do you believe?”

Yes, we believe.

Death will not win!


Jonah 4:5-11 — Jonah Learns a Lesson, or Did He?

January 14, 2016

Jonah thought Yahweh’s mercy to Nineveh was unjust and “evil.” Consequently, Jonah prayed–he lamented, complained, and essentially petitioned Yahweh to reverse the decision, to relent from mercy and apply wrath.

Yahweh’s response did not reject or dismiss the prayer. The prayer was heard. In fact, Yahweh responded: “Is it right (good) for you to be angry?” God did not slap Jonah in the face for his request, but gently questioned whether Jonah had sufficiently thought it through. God heard the complaint and responded. God did not abandon Jonah but pursued him.

There is nothing wrong in speaking our hearts to God and expressing our honest feelings. God already knows what we think and feel; we might as well give it voice. Indeed, this is a divine invitation for intimacy with God, and through this intimacy we  find healing and reorientation. I think this is what Yahweh intended for Jonah.

Jonah Leaves the City

Yahweh’s question, “Is it right (good) for you to be angry?” was an invitation to dialogue, but in response Jonah fled again. This time he fled to the “east,” which has significant biblical echoes. Lot went east toward Sodom (Genesis 13:11), and Cain settled “east of Eden” (Genesis 4:16). “East” is probably a theological commentary on Jonah’s flight from dialogue with God rather than simply a geographical reference. Jonah fled to the east, away from God’s presence (dialogue), just as earlier in the book Jonah had fled to the west, away from the presence of the Lord (Jonah 1:2).

He left the city and went out into the desert to a place where he could see what would happen to the city. Jonah does not go to the desert because he is afraid of going home. On the contrary, he erects a temporary shelter, a booth, which is—we might suppose—not only shelter but also a religious act. During the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths), Israel erected booths as temporary dwelling places in order to celebrate the festival (Leviticus 23:42). In the same way, Jonah erects a booth in the wilderness (outside the city). Perhaps he intends to wait seven days, just as Israel lived in booths for seven days. Whatever his intent, it was not a permanent dwelling. Jonah was waiting to see what God would do with Nineveh.

We might wonder why Jonah is waiting to see what will happen. He already knows God intends to spare it, or does he? His prayer was designed to persuade God to relent; Jonah wanted God to “change his mind” (nacham) again. He hoped his prayer might be as effective as Moses’s prayer in Exodus 32. Consequently, he waits for the answer to his prayer.

God’s Object Lesson for Jonah

Even though Jonah had constructed his own shelter to shade him from the sun, it was apparently insufficient. God graciously provided further shade for him through the growth of a plant. [We don’t know what kind of plant this was since this word is only used here in the Hebrew Bible.]

Just like the “great fish” (Jonah 2:1), “Yahweh God” (only time the two words are together in Jonah, Jonah 4:6) appointed a large plant to shade Jonah. Like the “great fish,” this was an act of mercy. The “great fish” rescued Jonah from the chaotic seas and saved him from drowning. Now the plant rescues Jonah from the heat and scorching sun of the chaotic wilderness.

Jonah’s response is joy, great joy. In fact, the narrator uses the same grammatical structure as in Jonah 4:1. In the same way that God’s mercy to Nineveh was “exceedingly evil” (it was evil, a great evil), so God’s mercy to Jonah is “exceedingly joyous” (Jonah was joyous, a great joy).  Jonah has two different responses to God’s mercy: what God did for Nineveh was evil but what God did for Jonah was good. Jonah hated the former but was grateful for the latter.

But God “changes his mind.” God relents. God appointed (same verb as previously) a worm (a figure associated with death in the Hebrew Bible) to attack the plant to destroy Jonah’s shade, and God appointed (same verb as previously) a strong east wind to cause Jonah discomfort under the hot sun. Jonah’s discomfort was so great Jonah wanted to die. He would rather die than suffer the intense heat; he would rather die than experience the withdrawal of God’s mercy.

In effect, God did to Jonah what Jonah asked God to do to Nineveh. God showed mercy with a shady plant and then took it back, pouring “judgment” upon Jonah through the worm and the east wind. God gave Jonah a taste of his own medicine. He wanted God to withdraw mercy from Nineveh, and now Jonah knows how that feels.

But did Jonah get the message?

Resumed Dialogue

Yahweh renews the dialogue by raising the same question as in Jonah 4:4 but with a twist. “Is it right (good) for you to be angry about the bush?”

Apparently, Jonah’s death-wish is a reflection of his resentment toward God’s withdrawal of the mercy the bush represented. Jonah is so angry he could die, which is probably a metaphor for the intensity of his anger. Jonah is upset with God for providing mercy and then withdrawing it.

Now comes the punch line, and it has many layers. Indeed, it is the presupposition of the whole Jonah narrative. Mercy arises out of God’s character, the divine nature. God has compassion for what God has created, including Nineveh.

Jonah did not create the plant, and it did not even exist very long. Yet, he is angered by its disappearance.

The people of Nineveh, however, are God’s own creation! This includes a great number of people. [120,000 is probably a metaphorical expression for a large count; the number appears often in the Hebrew Bible, cf. Judges 8:10; 1 Kings 8:63, etc.] And God’s concern is also for the “many animals” (which were also part of Nineveh’s repentance in Jonah 3:8).

In fact, God’s compassion is, in some sense, greater for Nineveh because they are wanderers without a compass. They do not “know their right hand from their left,” which identifies their lack of direction. They do not have the Torah, as Israel does, and the Torah is what enable people to know their right and left, good and evil. God recognizes and adjusts in the light of a people’s lack of guidance and knowledge when distributing mercy among the nations.

If Jonah had compassion on a single plant—which he did not create and did not exist more than a day, might not God have compassion on Nineveh, which God did create and where numerous people and animals are present? “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh?” rings in the ears of readers as the book ends.

God drops the mike and moves off stage!

Conclusion

This is how the narrative ends. God responds to Jonah, enters into dialogue with him, and seeks to reorient him. God intends to teach Jonah. The story, however, ends without any suggestion about how Jonah responded to God’s teaching. The narrative is open-ended—will Jonah embrace God’s direction or will Jonah resist it as he has up to this point in the story?

That is where the story ends. Yahweh has the last word, but we have no response from Jonah. We don’t know what Jonah does next.

It is like the elder brother in the story of the Two Sons (often called the Parable of the Prodigal Son) in Luke 15. Just as we don’t know how the elder son responded to his father’s plea to join the party, we don’t know how Jonah responded to Yahweh’s last words in this book.

The ending of the book is invitational. It is open-ended. It is an altar call, we might say. We are each Jonah. Have we learned what Yahweh was trying to teach through this brief narrative?

  • Have we embraced the mercy of God for others?
  • Have we heard God’s missional call and obeyed?
  • Have we submitted to God’s sovereignty?
  • Have we left justice in God’s hands?
  • Have resented God’s mercy for others “less deserving”?
  • Have we presumed upon God’s gracious election?
  • Have we loved others, including God’s creation, as God has?

We don’t know what Jonah did, and we will never know. But that is not our real problem. The appropriate question is more about us.

We are all Jonah. Have we learned the lesson God taught Jonah?


Jonah 4:1-4 — Jonah’s Angry Resentment

January 7, 2016

This is the peak moment in the story of Jonah.

God commissioned Jonah, but Jonah fled. God pursued Jonah, and Jonah relented and accepted the commission (after almost drowning). Jonah proclaimed hope/warning to Nineveh, and Nineveh repented. God “repented,” and Jonah…

One might expect Jonah to rejoice, but this is not what Jonah does. Instead, Jonah burns with resentment. Jonah is miffed with God because God showed Nineveh mercy! Jonah, like so many in Israel before him, now wrestles with God in prayer.

Jonah and Yahweh Contrasted

Yahweh responded to Nineveh, and so does Jonah. But their responses are quite opposite.

Jonah 3:10 reads:

  • God saw what Nineveh did (‘ashah).
  • Nineveh turned from their evil (ra’ah) ways.
  • God relented (nacham) from the “evil” (ra’ah) intended for Nineveh.
  • God “did not do (‘ashah) it.”

Jonah 4:1-3 contains:

  • It was exceedingly evil (ra’ah) to Jonah
  • That Yahweh would relent (nacham) from punishing.

When Nineveh turned away from its “evil,” God turned away from the “evil” God intended to do to Nineveh, but to Jonah this was “exceedingly evil” (ESV note). The translation “exceedingly evil” is expressive but still does not capture the emotion of the Hebrew. Literally, the text reads, “it was evil, greatly evil, to Jonah.” The root ‘ra (evil) is used as both a noun and a verb in the Hebrew.

What God saw as mercy to Nineveh, Jonah saw as a great evil. While God rejoiced over Nineveh’s repentance and compassionately poured out mercy, Jonah thinks God’s response is a great injustice (“evil”). Ninevites, in Jonah’s estimation, did not deserve God’s mercy, and God was unjust or unfair in providing it. Centuries of violence, in Jonah’s mind, cann0t be simply swept away with 40 days of repentance. As Youngblood, Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy, 152 perceptively comments: “Ironically, just as YHWH quenched his wrath, Jonah has kindled his. The reader is reminded of how out-of-step Jonah is. The event that calmed God’s wrath is the same event that has provoked Jonah’s wrath.” Jonah and Yahweh are not on the same page.

Jonah has a theological problem, if not a heart problem. He has no mercy for penitent Nineveh, and he thinks God has acted unjustly or inconsistently with the divine name, Yahweh, which is the covenant name of God. How is Israel’s God, who is Yahweh, able to show mercy to Nineveh? It makes no sense to Jonah. In fact, it seemed “evil” to Jonah.

Consequently, Jonah is angry. The root of the verb means to “burn.” In other words, Jonah is steaming hot about God’s mercy to Nineveh.

Jonah’s Prayer

As the author of Jonah described the relationship between Nineveh and Israel’s God, only “God” was used. “God saw what they did” and “God changed his mind.” But when Jonah turns to pray, he addresses God as “Yahweh.” This name represents Israel’s covenant relationship with the creator of heaven and earth. Jonah addresses the creator as one of the covenant people of God. This is a significant shift because “God” describes the relationship between the Creator and the nations, but the name “Yahweh” assumes the covenant relationship between the creator and Israel. Jonah, therefore, invokes the name of the one with whom he has a covenant relationship. The importance of this point will emerge more clearly in a moment.

The Hebrew verb for prayer occurs twice in Jonah: here (4:2) and in Jonah 2:2. In the latter, Jonah finds himself in the belly of the great fish and offers a thanksgiving prayer. However, here his prayer is a complaint. While in the first prayer Jonah is grateful for God’s steadfast love (hesed, which appears in 2:8), here Jonah complains about God’s mercy (hesed, which appears in 4:3).

Jonah’s lament prayer includes rather typical components. Jonah (1) invokes the name Yahweh, (2) complains (almost like, “I told you so”), (3) confesses the “God Creed” of Israel rooted in Exodus 34:6-7, and finally (4) petitions Yahweh to do something.

Jonah feared Yahweh might be merciful—perhaps Yahweh told Jonah this was the goal of his commission—and fled to the west (Tarshish). “I knew this would happen, and I told you it would happen” is the effect of Jonah’s complaint. It is, in fact, an implicit accusation of divine injustice (“this not what should happen!”), or at least an expression of Jonah’s anger (“I can’t believe you involved me in this injustice!”). Jonah knew what the result would because Jonah Knows who Yahweh is.

He knows Israel’s greatest confession, the “God Creed” (some call it). It is found in Exodus 34:6-7, and Jonah quotes the heart of it.

Exodus 34:6-7 Jonah 4:2
Gracious God Gracious God
Merciful/Compassionate God Merciful/Compassionate God
Slow to Anger (‘af) Slow to Anger (‘af)
Abounding in Steadfast Love (hesed) Abounding in Steadfast Love (hesed)

When Moses asked to see God and thus know who God truly is, Yahweh passed before him, proclaiming,

Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.

Yahweh is Israel’s God, and this God is committed to a gracious and merciful disposition toward Israel. As the rest of the “God Creed” states, Yahweh still disciplines the people, even for generations, but though the discipline extends to the third and fourth generation (a short time), Yahweh’s steadfast love extends for a thousand generations (forever). This is who Yahweh is; the creed describes Yahweh’s character. Consequently, this confession is frequently present in the liturgical life of Israel in both expanded and shortened forms (cf. Psalm 86:15; 99:8; 111:4; 112:4; 103:8; 145:8; Nehemiah 9:17, 31; 2 Chronicles 30:9).

At the same time, Jonah adds to the “God creed,” as does Joel 2:13. This addition highlights Jonah’s problem with what God did. Jonah confesses God is “ready to relent (nacham) from punishing,” that is, God is willing to “change his mind” and forgive sin. This is, of course, exactly what God did in Jonah 3:10. God “changed his mind” and forgave Nineveh of its “evil.”  Jonah regards this mercy as an “evil.”

Youngblood believes this addition is derived from Exodus 32:12 where Moses is wrestling (arguing) with God. Moses pleads, “Turn from your fierce wrath (‘af); change your mind (nacham) and do not bring disaster (ra’) on your people.” The language of Exodus 32:12 is prominent in Jonah 3:9-4:3.

What Jonah feared has happened. He feared God would “change his mind,” turn away his wrath against Nineveh, and fail to bring disaster upon the city. While this was the great “mercy” for which Moses pleaded at Mt. Sinai on behalf of Israel, Jonah regards it as a great “evil” when applied to Nineveh. Jonah might give thanks for God’s mercy to Israel, but he has no room for mercy to Nineveh.

Jonah’s prayer is not complete at this point. As with all complaint prayers, it includes a petition. Jonah asks God to end his life

This is a rather strange request. We might compare it to Job’s requests for God to leave him alone and let him die (Job 7:16). Perhaps Jonah cannot live with this reality; he would rather die than witness the renewal of Nineveh’s life. Perhaps he fears for his own life when he returns to Israel since many would object to his mission and its results.

But I think the clues within the prayer indicate something more. Jonah is arguing with God and is making a theological point. Jonah uses the plea for death as a way of saying, “Which is it going to be God? Me or Nineveh?” Youngblood (p. 156) puts it succinctly, “Jonah’s real goal is not death, but a reversal of YHWH’s decision to spare Nineveh.” Jonah is exercising some covenantal leverage here and assumes (perhaps) his life—as one of the covenant people—is more important to Yahweh than that of the Ninevites. I think is becomes clearer once we recognize what the real theological problem is, and we will get to that momentarily.

Yahweh’s initial response to Jonah is a brief question, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Using the same word for anger in 4:1, Yahweh questions Jonah’s resentment. Why should Jonah be resentful? Why is Jonah angry? When Jonah questions Yahweh’s justice—calling God’s mercy “evil”—Yahweh questions where Jonah’s anger is itself good (yatab) or fair/right/just?

Yahweh, we should notice, does not execute Jonah or split him apart with lightning for his complaint prayer. On the contrary, Yahweh gently nudges Jonah to contemplative introspection. Yahweh asks Jonah a simple question (three words in Hebrew).

Yahweh has still not given up on Jonah. Rather than granting his request, Yahweh pursues Jonah by engaging in dialogue and, as we will see in Jonah 4:4-11, continues to teach Jonah rather than punish him.

What’s the Problem?

Jonah is angry. He believes God has done “evil.” He asks God to kill him.

This is a desperate situation. What has Jonah so out of sorts?

Perhaps Jonah is bitter about the “evil” Nineveh has committed against Israel; he finds it unforgiveable. Perhaps Jonah holds some kind of personal grudge (e.g., did some Assyrian kill Jonah’s father?). Perhaps Jonah has a racial prejudice against non-Jews. I suppose any of these might be true but we would have no way of knowing. Instead, we must look for the clues within the text itself.

Jonah, I think, has a theological problem with God’s mercy towards Nineveh. Youngblood’s analysis is illuminating (pp. 156-158). Jonah’s problem is the same one that emerges in renewed Israel within the pages of the New Testament. It is the question Paul addresses in Romans 9-11. How can the covenant God of Israel show mercy to non-covenant people? What does this say about God’s faithfulness to Israel if Israel has no advantage over the nations?

The “God Creed” is about Yahweh, and Yahweh is Israel’s God with whom Israel lives in covenant. God’s faithfulness entails God’s commitment to Israel. This is the people to whom God shows mercy. Apparently, Jonah thought this was an exclusive covenant. Once God entered into covenant with Israel, then all others were outside that covenant and therefore beyond the mercy of God since God’s mercy and steadfast love are fundamentally covenantal in character. Exodus 34, for example, is God’s commitment to Israel within a covenantal framework.

But Jonah—as were the Judaizers who infected the Galatian churches—was mistaken. God’s mercy flows not from the covenant alone but out of God’s character. God is gracious, compassionate, and merciful; or, as John put it, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). This is God’s character, God’s very nature. Covenants are God’s free expression of mercy and love, but God’s mercy is not limited to such covenants.

While Yahweh lives in covenant with Israel, this does not preclude God’s mercy for the nations. Indeed, God elected Israel for the sake of the nations. God will treat the nations just like he treats Israel, which has no special claim on God’s mercy. They are elect to serve the nations rather than elect because they are the sole objects of God’s mercy.

God, who is the maker of the sea and dry land (Jonah 1:9), is not only Israel’s covenant God but also the God of the whole earth whose mercy flows not only to Israel but also to the nations.

There is, then, such a thing as the “uncovenanted” mercies of God. Yahweh may show mercy to whom Yahweh desires to show mercy, whether in the covenant or outside the covenant.

Covenant people are always at risk of thinking they are the only ones to whom God shows mercy. Their “election” becomes a presumption, and consequently they think God unjust when God shows mercy to those outside the covenant….whether they are outside the covenant because they are uncircumcised or unimmersed.

May God have mercy!