How do WE Respond to God?

Anyone else a Star Trek fan? I was captivated by the series as a child, but the only time I could see it was when we visited my grandparents in southern Manitoba. They lived close to the US border and so picked up more than CBC!

 I remember a number of years ago watching a Star Trek Voyageur show.  This was one of the spin-offs of the original show from the 60s. ‘Their continuing mission was to seek out new life and new civilization, to boldly go where no one has gone before.’ Of course, like all good movies, especially science fiction, there is some sort of problem, and rather than their 1 year mission, they are thrown off course, and are not sure when or if they will be able to get back home. 

One of the characters in the show is a Native American. His father had died the year before and on the anniversary of his death, he needs to perform some ritual at his grave. Well, it become evident that they are not going to be back on earth to do this so he takes the things he needs for the ritual and gets into a shuttle craft and goes off on his own to do the ritual. Picture this, they are millions, perhaps billions of miles away from earth, in another galaxy and he brings the shuttle craft to a stop and lays out the things he needs. His first words are, “O Great Spirit…” as he begins his prayer.  My immediate, unconscious reaction is “God can’t hear you; you are too far away.” 

Well, let me tell you, that thought surprised me… And had me wondering, is there anywhere that we can go, that is too far away, where God can no longer reach us?  

Jonah evidently thought that the Ninevites were beyond God’s reach, because when we heard God’s voice, he went in exactly the OPPOSITE direction. What you may not realize was that the Ninevites were arch enemies of the Hebrew people. Jonah’s reluctance to go to Nineveh was based on the idea God’s grace and inclusion were only for the Hebrew people. In fact, he didn’t want them to repent… he wanted them to suffer what was known then as God’s wrath. But God…  as God so often does, uses unexpected people in unexpected ways to demonstrate just how big and how vast God’s love is. Let’s listen to the first part of the story as it is written in Jonah 1: 1-17: 

One day the Lord spoke to Jonah son of Amittai. He said, “Go to Nineveh, that great city, and speak out against it; I am aware of how wicked its people are.” Jonah, however, set out in the opposite direction in order to get away from the Lord. He went to Joppa, where he found a ship about to go to Spain. He paid his fare and went aboard with the crew to sail to Spain, where he would be away from the Lord. But the Lord sent a strong wind on the sea, and the storm was so violent that the ship was in danger of breaking up. The sailors were terrified and cried out for help, each one to his own god. Then, in order to lessen the danger,[a] they threw the cargo[b] overboard. Meanwhile, Jonah had gone below and was lying in the ship’s hold, sound asleep.

The captain found him there and said to him, “What are you doing asleep? Get up and pray to your god for help. Maybe he will feel sorry for us and spare our lives.”

The sailors said to each other, “Let’s draw lots and find out who is to blame for getting us into this danger.” They did so, and Jonah’s name was drawn. So they said to him, “Now, then, tell us! Who is to blame for this? What are you doing here? What country do you come from? What is your nationality?”

“I am a Hebrew,” Jonah answered. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made land and sea.” 10 Jonah went on to tell them that he was running away from the Lord.

The sailors were terrified, and said to him, “That was an awful thing to do!”[c] 11 The storm was getting worse all the time, so the sailors asked him, “What should we do to you to stop the storm?”

12 Jonah answered, “Throw me into the sea, and it will calm down. I know it is my fault that you are caught in this violent storm.”

13 Instead, the sailors tried to get the ship to shore, rowing with all their might. But the storm was becoming worse and worse, and they got nowhere. 14 So they cried out to the Lord, “O Lord, we pray, don’t punish us with death for taking this man’s life! You, O Lord, are responsible for all this; it is your doing.” 15 Then they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea, and it calmed down at once. 16 This made the sailors so afraid of the Lord that they offered a sacrifice and promised to serve him.

17 At the Lord’s command a large fish swallowed Jonah, and he was inside the fish for three days and three nights.

It’s a pretty fantastical story isn’t it? And Jonah’s pretty chill… in the midst of all that, he’s taking a nap! And not meant to be taken literally. Sorry, but there was no fish… or whale… despite there being three places in Turkey where Jonah was supposedly spat up! We don’t read any of chapter 2, where Jonah spends all his time in prayer. It may feel as if we are deep inside the fish. Rocked by waves and wanting to run back to the safety and security of what was. Even as we know it was just the illusion of safety and security. Or safety and security for some, not for all. And so we pray to God. We call on God to be with us. We remind ourselves and each other that WE are not God and that God might be calling us to something FAR beyond what we imagined.

After three days and three nights of darkness and prayer, Jonah was ready to respond to God’s word. Listen as God once again gives him instructions:

Once again the Lord spoke to Jonah. He said, “Go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to the people the message I have given you.” 

So Jonah obeyed the Lord and went to Nineveh, a city so large that it took three days to walk through it. Jonah started through the city, and after walking a whole day, he proclaimed, “In forty days Nineveh will be destroyed!”

The people of Nineveh believed God’s message. So they decided that everyone should fast, and all the people, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth to show that they had repented.

When the king of Nineveh heard about it, he got up from his throne, took off his robe, put on sackcloth, and sat down in ashes. He sent out a proclamation to the people of Nineveh: “This is an order from the king and his officials: No one is to eat anything; all persons, cattle, and sheep are forbidden to eat or drink. All persons and animals must wear sackcloth. Everyone must pray earnestly to God and must give up their wicked behavior and their evil actions. Perhaps God will change his mind; perhaps he will stop being angry, and we will not die!”

10 God saw what they did; he saw that they had given up their wicked behavior. So he changed his mind and did not punish them as he had said he would.

Jonah came out of that time of prayer a transformed man. This time, hearing exactly the same words, he headed towards Nineveh. And the people listened to him and repented and were saved. It’s a story about God and it’s a story about us. It’s a story about how God’s mercy and love extends far beyond what we imagine, in this case, beyond the Hebrew people. Far beyond what we might be comfortable with. It’s a story of what transformation can take place in the dark when we listen to God. When we pray, not for what we want, but for what God wants. When the darkness births something new and different… and God is there too! I ran across this story on Facebook called Love the Goo.

Before a caterpillar can become a butterfly, it must become goo. Within the cocoon, the caterpillar dissolves into a liquid that is rich with nutrients and potential. It’s super goo. All transformations include this gooey phase. Whether the transformation is individual or collective, goo is part of it. Whether you’re seeking transformation or it’s seeking you – get comfortable with the goo. You can’t skip the goo. There’s no skipping steps on the transforming journey. Every phase of the process has a purpose and must be completed before you can move on. You can’t leap from newbie to expert in a single bound. There’s a developmental sequence that you must follow. It’s an organic process that moves according to developmental time. The cadence of developmental time contrasts sharply with the pace of contemporary life. We’re addicted to the instant response. This speedy tempo is ill-suited to the goo-ification process. The goo phase can’t be rushed. It will dissolve the addiction to speed along with everything else. You know you’re into the goo when an old form has completely dissolved – but the new form has not yet emerged. Only by letting go of the old forms can you make space for something new to be born. In spiritual literature goo-ification is called the dark night of the soul. This means being called to let go of the known and the past. Trust the darkness. Recognize that “those who dwell in darkness shall see the light.” Your work is to consent to goo-ification without knowing how you will be re-formed. To hold yourself together now is to fight against your own destiny. The way forward comes through letting go and surrender. As your old identity dissolves, the stillness deepens. When you rest completely in the goo – without clinging to the past or straining towards the future – something that you can’t plan for happens.Within the stillness, the creative impulse of your soul stirs. Just as a butterfly emerges from the goo, your renewed life arises from stillness.

We all love the butterfly… some of us might even be fond of the caterpillar… but most of us forget about the complete and utter transformation that takes place inside the cocoon.

A year into this Intentional Interim Ministry period and I feel as if we are in the midst of the goo. Some of us would like instant, tangible results, that’s me some days! Some of can take the long view, letting God do the slow work of transforming hearts; that too is me some days. 😉 The ways of doing church for the past 50 years are dying and yet we resist transformation.

We forget that the essentials of our faith are: We gather the people; we share the stories and we break the bread. That’s it! Everything else is just customs and traditions that have grown up around those things. Yes, some of those customs and traditions are dearly loved, but they are not the essentials of our faith. Jonah experienced a complete and utter transformation of his understanding of God’s love and mercy inside his dark cocoon. As we move further and further into the darkening days of November and December, remember that new life and transformation ALWAYS begin in the dark.

Thanks be to God for stories that challenge and inspire. Amen.

Jonah 1:1-17; 3:1-10

November 8, 2020 – SMUC

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