Saturday, September 29, 2018

"Abundant Opportunities"

            Last Sunday we began a new proclamation series at my church in Lincoln, Christ United Methodist Church.  This new series focuses on “Abundance.”  We began the series last week by exploring the question, “What is an abundant life?”  This Sunday, September 30th, we will shift our focus to the question, “What abundant opportunities does God give us?” 

            By Abundant Opportunities, I mean those opportunities where God invites us to become created co-creators in God’s ongoing work of creation and redemption.  Expressed another way, I am referring to those opportunities when God invites us to become junior partners in establishing God’s Reign here on Earth.  In this view of Christian faith, each of us is created with the imago dei, the image of God.  God loves each human person and seeks to enter into a loving relationship with each of us.  God intends for this loving relationship to grow deeper and stronger, just the loving relationship between two individual persons.  For Christians, this loving relationship is mediated through the life, teachings, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

            These abundant opportunities can take many different forms, including serving others, working for justice, acting inclusively, and sharing the good news of God’s love with those who haven’t heard it or don’t yet understand it.  Both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible contain many stories of individual persons who were specifically called by God for a special opportunity to share in God’s ongoing work of creation and redemption.  We refer to these particular types of stories as call stories.  During our worship service this week, we are going to look at two particular call stories:  (1) the story of Jonah in the Old Testament (or, Hebrew Scriptures) and (2) the story of Saul, who later became the Apostle Paul in the New Testament.  Let’s look at these two stories in more detail: 


Quite frankly, Biblical scholars don’t know what to make of the Book of Jonah.  Just as the Hebrew books of Esther, Ruth, and Job, the Book of Jonah is not intended to be a factual historical account.  Biblical scholars have speculated that it might be intended as folktale, parable, satire, or even a Hebrew midrash text.  Yet, Jonah does not fit precisely into any of these categories of scriptural literature.  One thing which is certain is that the Book of Jonah is filled with sarcastic humor and literary exaggeration.  For instance, the city of Nineveh is said to be a three-day walk from one side to the other, which would be about 50 miles.  Most modern cities are not that large.  In her analysis of the text, Phyllis Trible concludes, “In its richness, complexity, and distinctiveness, the book of Jonah resists the categorizing endemic to genres.  …Perhaps the best interpretive efforts allow Jonah freedom to move among genres.”[1]

            The Book of Jonah opens with God calling upon Jonah to become a prophet and journey to Nineveh to call the citizens to repent from their wickedness.  Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria in the Hebrew scriptures.   When Jonah hears God’s call, he immediately books passage on a ship heading in the opposite direction, fleeing west towards Tarshish, instead of heading east towards Nineveh.  In other parts of the Hebrew scriptures, Nineveh is portrayed as being an especially evil city.  Further, a Hebrew prophet in a foreign land faced greater risk and was especially vulnerable to retribution from the natives.

            Almost immediately, God causes a huge storm to come upon Jonah’s ship.  The wind  blew ferociously and the wooden ship threatened to break apart.  The sailors began praying to their respective gods.  They also began desperately throwing the ship’s cargo overboard.  It is not clear why they threw the cargo overboard.  Perhaps they were trying to lighten the ship’s hold so that it could more easily ride out the storm, or perhaps the cargo was an offering to their gods for mercy.  Meanwhile, Jonah had gone down into the ship’s hold and fallen into a deep sleep—almost a trance.  The ship’s captain discovers Jonah and awakes him.

            Back on the stormy deck, the sailors are busy casting lots, trying to determine which one of them has so angered the gods.  The cast-lot points to Jonah and so the sailors question him.  Jonah confesses that the Hebrew God is angry with him because of his disobedience.  He suggests that the only way for the storm to abate is for the sailors to pick him up and throw him overboard, as they have already done with the cargo.  Jonah makes it clear that he will not jump overboard himself.

            Jonah’s request that the sailors throw him in the sea puts them into a double jeopardy.  On the one hand, if they do as he asks and throw him into the sea, they will be responsible for his death.  They understand that murdering Jonah will bring harsh punishment upon them from the gods.  On the other hand, if they don’t throw Jonah overboard, the Hebrew God will eventually capsize the boat and they will drown.  At first, the sailors try to row their ship to the shore.  When that doesn’t work, they ask forgiveness from God and ultimately toss Jonah overboard.  Immediately, the sea becomes quiet and the sailors understand that God has heard their prayer and forgiven them for tossing Jonah overboard.

            What make appear at first blush as an altruistic sacrifice which Jonah makes in order to save the lives of the sailors is actually a selfish desire to commit suicide, upon deeper reflection.  At this point in the story, Jonah has tried to avoid God’s call to him in three ways.  First, he tried to run away from God’s call physically, by taking a ship in the opposite direction from Nineveh.  Secondly, he tried to avoid God’s call psychologically by going into a deep sleep in the ship’s hold during the storm.  Finally, he tries to avoid God’s call by essentially attempting suicide.  Yet, even here, Jonah is foiled by God. When he lands in the stormy waters, he is swallowed by a large fish, where he stays for three days.  On the third day, the fish vomits Jonah up on the dry land.  Then, God calls Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh and proclaim God’s prophetic word of judgment and justice.  This time, Jonah complies and begins going in the right direction towards Nineveh.   

Saul, who became Paul

            Whereas Jonah rejected God’s Call and physically ran off in the opposite direction, in the New Testament the Apostle Paul accepts the Call of Christ and dedicates the rest of his life to fulfilling the Call by becoming a missionary, proclaiming the Good News to Gentiles and Jews alike.  Here the account of Paul’s Call as described by Luke in the Book of Acts 9:1-6.

 "Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.  But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’”

In the scriptures, a bright light and sometimes thunder frequently indicate a moment when God meets and calls a prophet, see Exodus 19:16; Ezekiel 1:4, 28; and Daniel 10:6.  Saul (later Paul) is well aware of these passages from the Hebrew Scriptures.  So, he immediately falls to the ground, expecting to hear God speaking with a special message for him.  Imagine Saul’s surprise when he hears the voice of Jesus, the very person whose follower he has been arresting and persecuting!

            Yet, Saul is very attentive to the words of Jesus.  When Jesus speaks to Saul, he confirms that he has risen from the dead and that he is the long-awaited Messiah.  Jesus is not just another dead pretender.  No.  Instead, he is the real Messiah.  Saul is blinded by the brilliant light.  So, after Jesus’ brief instructions, he must be led by his traveling companions into the city of Damascus, where he begins a three-day period of fasting and prayer.

            At the end of this three-day period, Christ appears in a second vision to one of his followers, name Ananias.  Jesus instructs Ananias on where he can find Saul in the city.  Then, he asks Ananias to visit Saul and pray with him so that Saul may regain his sight.  At first Ananias objects because he fears Saul.  He says, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem’” (Acts 9:13).  However, Christ reassures Ananias, telling him: “‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name’” (Acts 9:15-16)

            So, Ananias goes to Saul and prays with him.  Saul receives his sight back.  Saul soon leaves Damascus for Jerusalem, which is where he must begin his response to God’s Call. 

            The Call Stories of Jonah and Saul could hardly be more different.  Whereas Jonah rejected God’s Call and tried to avoid God, Saul accepted God’s Call and worked very hard to fulfill God’s mission for him—willingly sacrificing and suffering in order to serve God.

            Call Stories are not limited to the distant past.  God continues to call each of us to join in the work of helping to establish God’s Reign here on Earth; of joining in God’s work of continuing creation and redemption.  God calls individuals and God also calls communities of faith.  There are abundant opportunities to become junior partners with God.  Perhaps God is calling you …

  • To work for justice, peace, and reconciliation; helping to heal what divides us as a society
  • To feed the hungry, find housing for the homeless; care for the sick and lonely; welcome the stranger; care for those with dependencies, and be good stewards of God’s Creation.
  • To share the good news of God’s deep and profound love with those who are spiritually desperate and searching.  
            The question for each of us is simple.  When God calls us to a special opportunity to help in redeeming the world and establishing God’s Reign, how will we respond?  Will we be another Jonah?  Or, will we be another Saul?

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, September 30th, as we continue our exploration of Abundance, focusing on the abundant opportunities which God gives to join in creating a new world.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come, join us.  We are committed to acting inclusively because God loves us all.

[1] Phyllis Trible, Commentary on the Book of Jonah in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 7, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

No comments:

Post a Comment