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2 Cor 5:14-21
Also in this Sermon Series…
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
If you’ve been following along the last two Sunday’s you know that we are in the middle of the book that bears the name of a reluctant prophet: the prophet Jonah.
Two weeks ago he was given a call from God but instead of responding to God with willingness to serve. Or instead of talking to God about his fears and concerns like many prophets of the Bible do, Jonah runs. And his choice costs him a great deal: it costs him money and time and nearly costs him his life. Jonah finds himself hitting rock bottom. In the very worst place imaginable.
A place the Scriptures call Sheol. A place so horrible that some have even wondered if God can reach it. But God does. God reaches down to the depths that Jonah has sunk and raises him back up and yes, spews him out of the belly of the beast and onto dry land.
I can imagine being Jonah in this position and thinking: well, I’m physically alive, but my life is now over. I’ve defied God. Yes, God saved me, but clearly I am unfit for service. I should probably go home and just try to keep my head down.
That’s how I often feel after I make a mistake anyway. When I realize my own sin, my own shortcomings, I just want to hide. Shame takes over and I tend to shut down. I tend to think, well, since I didn’t do that thing right, I probably can’t do anything right. And I just stop trying. Maybe some of you can relate.
Or, as we consider Jonah’s story, maybe we might dare for a minute put ourselves in God’s shoes. I know, dangerous place to even imagine, but perhaps we can pause for a moment and consider being in a position of authority. Perhaps you are a manager or a coach or leader in a volunteer organization. You give a task to one of your subordinates to do, ask them to complete a very important job. But they don’t. Worse still, they don’t even tell you they aren’t going to do it, they just totally flake, fly to Aruba for the week and leave you hanging with the project undone. What would your reaction be?
This is the situation God and Jonah find themselves in.
Jonah probably feeling so much shame he can only sit down in the dirt. And God. Well, maybe it’s God’s actions that might surprise us here. Instead of doing what I think most of us would do with our subordinate—put him on the bench for a while, at least—God simply calls to Jonah: Get up. Go to Nineveh. Proclaim my message.”
It’s the same call as Jonah received in Chapter 1. God hasn’t changed God’s mind. Not about Jonah. Sure, Jonah royally messed up. He found himself in the worst place imaginable. No, he ran away from God head first into the worst place imaginable. But God has created Jonah. God knows Jonah by name. God’s call is still on Jonah.
Perhaps you have heard this before, but it bears repeating: There is nothing that Jonah can do that will make God love him any less. There is nothing Jonah can do that will make God love him any more. There is nothing Jonah can do that will thwart the plans of God.
And if you are looking around at your own life and finding yourself in the belly of a whale, completely broken at rock bottom. Or if you are thinking about something you said—an overreaction you had or a unkind word at a certain moment. Or maybe a task that you know you were called to do but didn’t. If you are looking at your own life today and you are covered in shame. If you are wondering if you should even get out of bed because of the stuff you have done or the stuff that has been done to you. Sometimes life feels so overwhelming that it’s easier to just hide.
But know in your bones that this is true: there is nothing you can do that will make God love you any less. There is nothing you can do that will make God love you any more. There is nothing you can do that will thwart the good plans of God.
Despite the mess Jonah made of his first call, the call comes to Jonah a second time: Get up. Go to Nineveh. Proclaim my message.
God forgives him. God calls him. A second chance.
And this time Jonah does it right. Well, kind of, anyway.
He does go. And when he is in Nineveh he preaches literally the worst sermon known to humankind. I mean, I know I’ve preached some bad sermons. I have. But preachers out there everywhere, none of us are as bad a Jonah. So there is hope for us yet.
He goes to the middle of city and says: “Forty days more and Ninevah shall be overthrown.”
That’s it. That’s the whole sermon. In Hebrew it’s actually 5 words. A 5 word sermon. That’s it.
But here’s the kicker. Despite Jonah’s lack of passion. Despite his lack of effort. Despite Jonah’s terrible message: The people believe God. Not Jonah. God.
Somehow God’s Holy Spirit works through this terrible message and everything changes.
The people from the greatest to the smallest. From the peasants to the king. All of them repent of their violence and sit down in sack cloth and ashes. The symbol of repentance. The desire to turn to God and live for God. Like we do on Ash Wednesday. They put ashes on their bodies as a sign of turning from sin and towards the God of the universe.
And my favorite part: not only do they repent, but their animals do too. The animals get dressed up in sack cloth. Total and complete change. Nothing untouched. A full reversal.
It’s a beautiful thing.
You know, there are a lot of things in this book of the Bible that seem pretty unlikely. Getting swallowed by a whale. Whales don’t eat people. And if one did, how would you not die being in the stomach acid? And then animals in sack cloth. Not drinking water? Really?
The Scripture is calling us to use our imaginations. To consider the possibilities of the worst things that could happen and the greatest change imaginable.
But is it possible. Change, I mean. Is change possible?
I’ve been walking alongside a couple who is getting married in a couple of weeks. It’s been such a joy to talk with them and to read a book I’ve read a couple of times but which has a new edition. I would recommend it to all married couples whether you are newly married or have been walking this journey together for many years. It’s called The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work.
The author Dr. Gottman has been studying couples for a generation and trying to figure out what makes good marriages stay good and what causes some marriages to turn sour.
The traditional wisdom use to be that there were two things that caused divorce: One was that a spouse cheated. And the second was that the couple went through a trauma and couldn’t get passed it: maybe a job loss or death that they never recovered from.
But Gottman shows that the health and longevity of a marriage isn’t based on some primal instinct of whether or not the two people can stay loyal to one another and not have affairs. Nor is it based on the amount of trauma the partners have been through for there are some partners who go through the belly of the beast together, and they come out stronger than ever, and there are others who don’t.
No instead, Gottman points to our habits, our ways of being.
We all have habits. Some of us are early birds. Some of us are night owls. Supposedly more and more of us are moving toward shift sleeping: getting four hours here and then getting up and later taking a couple hour nap.
We have habits of eating. And habits of exercise. And yes, habits of living.
And for those of us who have spouses, sometimes our habits of being lead to good and healthy and long marriages. And sometimes our habits of being put us on a trajectory towards an unhappy marriage or divorce.
Gottman describes it this way: In all marriages, and I would say in all relationships, there are going to be disagreements. There are going to be conflicts. Conflict is absolutely unavoidable because no two people are the same. And there is no such thing as marrying a perfect person.
For instance, perhaps you and your spouse often get into a disagreement because one of you always wants to be on time for social events but the other is very fluid about time and can never seem to be ready when you want to go. It’s a perpetual problem that you can’t seem to solve.
Well, if you start to think: oh, if I had just married a punctual person than things would be fine. Well, maybe. But maybe the new person you marry might be uninterested in going to social events at all and then you would argue about what to go to and when to stay home.
Despite what Disney might show us, life isn’t about finding that perfect person, the one who completes us, but rather about developing habits with the one we marry or the people we choose to walk with in this life so that our life together will flourish. To say it another way, we might start to think that the grass is greener on the other side, but really, the grass is greener where we water it.
So, what do we do if we find that we are always arguing and in a situation where things are falling apart? Well, the traditional wisdom is that we talk about the area of conflict. Sometimes over and over again. Sometimes using “I” statements “I think, I feel” or we make lists so that the same things don’t keep happening.
But Gottman’s studies suggest that really what we need to do is to change our focus. Our goal needs to be to prioritize the relationship. To create together what he calls a love map, a structure for created shared meaning.
It’s not the disagreements that break marriages apart or the challenges in life, it’s that when we face those challenges, we need to turn towards one another instead of away. Support one another and recognize who the other is instead of shaming them for the behavior that we don’t appreciate.
Formation of new habits.
That’s what repentance is about. It’s not about just simply saying: oh, I said that one thing I shouldn’t have said. Well, God forgive me. Then we go out and say something equally cruel the next day.
No, it’s about changing our habits in the power of the Holy Spirit. It starts with building a relationship. A firm foundation with the God of the universe. A love map where we know who we are and more importantly—who’s we are. Where we know that we belong to God and are beloved children of God.
And through that knowledge, through that relationship, we become new. Paul says it this way in his Second Letter to the Corinthian Church: “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”
Repentance is a way of life. A way of being.
And here’s the good news of the gospel: whether we are talking about our marriages or our earthly relationships or our relationship with God, there is hope.