We are such huge consumers of stories and so familiar with every basic plot and trope that it is rare for a movie or TV episode to turn out exactly as one would think from watching its beginning. If it did we would be bored. So now everything has a plot twist. That person you thought was a good guy? Wrong! He's a bad guy. That secret gizmo everyone is trying to get their hands on? It's a red herring; there's another secret scheme being played out instead. That event we were told could never happen? Well, it's happening right now!
You expect it from Doctor Who, where the time traveler can meet someone for the first time, although from their point of view they've met him before. And that person can be his assassin, his wife, his current companion's baby or all 3. But now all shows are doing it—even if it makes no sense. As long as it's unexpected, they will do it. They want to surprise us. They want to keep us guessing. But my wife and son are usually one step ahead of them.
The Bible has been around so long and we have heard its stories so often that we forget that it too has plot twists. In today's reading from Jonah, we see a few of them. Jonah, though a prophet, did not want to preach to Nineveh. Because he didn't want to warn them of their doom? No, but because he was afraid they would repent. He knew that, despite the fact that they were foreigners and enemies and worshipers of other gods, there was the possibility that they might take him seriously when he pronounces the terrible judgment coming from Israel's God. Which they do. Then Jonah grimly sets up camp outside the city, hoping to see it consumed in fire and brimstone. Instead a bush grows up which gives him shade from the brutal Middle-Eastern sun. Then it dies and Jonah is on the verge of heat stroke. Plus Nineveh still stands. Jonah asks God to let him die. “Why?” asks God. Because Jonah knew God was gracious and merciful and way too prone to forgive people when they repented. Jonah wanted Nineveh obliterated! God then contrasts Jonah's grief over the death of the bush with his concern over the potential deaths of 120,000 pagans, who didn't know right from wrong. And also their animals.
Imagine how this struck the original audience. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, which had defeated the northern kingdom of Israel and taken them into exile. And unlike what happened with the Judeans 200 years later, this was an exile from which those Israelites would never return. They are the 10 lost tribes of Israel you hear about. So Nineveh was like Nazi Berlin. And God wants Jonah to preach there. No wonder the prophet went AWOL. No wonder he wanted those people to get their just desserts. And so would the Jews listening to this story. They too might be shocked that God would forgive their enemies. Whose side is he on anyway?
God is too merciful in a lot of people's minds. The Westboro Baptist Church can't wait for God to sweep everyone—except them—into hell. On their website, among the statistics they list, like how many pickets they have held and how many cities they have picketed in, is a countdown of how many people have been cast into hell since you downloaded their page! They tellingly give the number of people saved from the flood in Noah's ark (8—tiny number, just like the church which consists almost entirely of Fred Phelps' family) as well as their estimate of how many people drowned back in prehistory (16 billion or more than twice the world's current population. No source for this enormous figure is given.) They also list 0 as the number of nanoseconds sleep they will lose over “your opinions and feeeeellllliiiiings!” (Their spelling.) I wonder how they interpret God's speech to Jonah? Would they, like Jonah, feel God is just not wrathful enough for their tastes? Do they realize that their theology says more about them than it does about God?
Human beings tend to believe that the only good enemy is a dead enemy. But God says that he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked but instead in their turning to him and living. (Ezekiel 18:23) God's preferred method is turning enemies into friends. That's a plot twist I wish the growing number of shows and movies that include God as a character, even if not shown, would employ. Usually such films are about apocalyptic battles between good and evil and no quarter is given by either side. God is depicted as much more interested in punishing evil people than in redeeming them. Rarely is the idea of forgiveness by God broached, much less demonstrated.
One of the semi-exceptions is the recent Seth Rogan comedy This Is The End. This Not Safe For Church movie has Rogan and his actor friends portraying shallow Hollywood versions of themselves who are facing the end of the world as envisioned by some evangelicals. Good people are raptured first and the half dozen stars holed up in James Franco's mansion mostly die in gross and sometimes hilarious ways. But those who sacrifice themselves for others are belatedly raptured. However it has to be sincere and not calculated. Franco lets his friends escape by offering himself to the cannibalistic hordes chasing them. They attack him and he begins to be raptured. Then Franco gloatingly flips off the cannibals and just like that, the heavenly tractor beam fades and he falls into the eager hands and teeth of the mob. Even though the characters at one point consult the Bible and read that they must accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, no one does this and this isn't a biblically accurate film. But the fact that forgiveness and salvation are even depicted, however imperfectly, surprised me.
God is surprising, though. He makes the world a paradise but he allows us to make our own moral choices despite the risk that we will ruin things. And when we do, he doesn't wash his hands of us but promises to redeem us. And he doesn't pick a powerful or numerous people for his plan but the offspring of a nomadic shepherd. And when his people are enslaved, he doesn't send a warrior but a spokesmen to lead them into freedom.
When his people demand a king, he gives them one but still holds him responsible for his own behavior. This is surprising because usually religion's function in society is to bless the status quo. But God starts a whole network of critics of society called the prophets. And when his people don't heed them, he lets other nations defeat them and take them into exile. But he brings them back after 70 years and tells them to rebuild. And he promises them a Messiah, a prophet, priest and king anointed by God's Spirit who will deliver his people from their worst enemy.
When his people essentially invite the Romans into their country, and then find them taking over and becoming their oppressors, God sends his Messiah. However he doesn't send a warrior as his people expected but a healer and teacher. And when the inevitable confrontation comes between the Messiah and his enemies, the blood shed is his. This is how he delivers us from our worst enemy: our own sin.
I remember when I realized that the cross was a major plot twist. I was 10 and my family went to see the major motion picture epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told. We hadn't gone to church in ages and I was surprised and horrified when Jesus was crucified. This wasn't a typical Hollywood ending. The good guy doesn't die. How could this happen?
In that, I was in line with the original disciples. They also were surprised by Jesus' execution. This wasn't how God's Anointed King was supposed to end up. And it shattered them. They huddled in a room, behind a door locked lest the authorities come for them. They were in despair.
But God had yet another plot twist for them. Jesus the Messiah wouldn't stay dead. God raised him up and he bypassed the locked door to reveal that God had a totally different mission for Jesus than his disciples thought. And it's not like Jesus didn't tell them about it. It was just so radical they couldn't accept it. Now that it was an undeniable fact they cautiously took it in. But it took Jesus 40 days to teach them what it all means and what the next step was.
And it was not to spread the word of the kingdom of God by the sword, as other kingdoms had done. It was not to pretend that Jesus had been a success as the world gauged success. It was not to promise people a good and prosperous life if they followed Jesus' principles. It was to simply tell the story of what God had done in Jesus' life, death and resurrection. And it was to tell others that living a life of trusting God and following Jesus, even to a death like his, was worth it. And they called it, unironically, the Good News or Gospel.
And the surprising thing is: people were attracted to it. They saw in Christ's teaching a deep wisdom the world couldn't grasp. They saw in his life and actions the grace they longed for. They saw in his death the love of God. They saw in his resurrection a triumph that does not consist in dealing out death to others. And they saw in the Spirit a power that was unlike that the world wielded. Instead of a power that enslaved, they experienced a power that freed them from the limitations the world imposed. There was no Greek or Jew, no slave or free, no male or female in Christ but a unity born of God's love and justice.
So what happened? Today's church is not a place people look to for surprises. They see the same squabbles, the same power plays, the same greed, the same lust, the same rage, the same arrogance in it that they see in the world. They see the same sins that Jesus was supposed to free us from. We are supposed to be carrying on his mission but we have become just like every other organization. We have become the worst kind of sequel: Highlander 2, where all that was good and unique about the original is undone.
We need a reboot. We need to recapture the Spirit of Jesus. Or rather we need to be recaptured by him. We need to really renounce ourselves, our fears and desires and agendas, and take up our crosses and walk in his ways. We need to stop sowing hatred and start showing Christ-like love. We need to stop sowing discord and start showing unity. We need to stop injuring and start offering forgiveness and healing. Only then will we be able to turn doubt to faith, despair to hope, sadness to joy and darkness to light.
The world doesn't really like light. It reveals its flaws, its sins, its lies, its hypocrisies. Explosions it likes. They look cool and they destroy what we really don't want to deal with. Most Hollywood movies end with explosions and the hero walking away from the flaming destruction he has wrought. Then the screen goes black. No surprise there.
In 1 John 1:5 it says, “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” The story of the Bible begins with God saying, “Let there be light” and it ends in a gleaming city of gold, of which it says, “The city has no need for the sun, neither of the moon, to shine for the very glory of God illuminated it, and its lamp is the Lamb.” (Revelation 21:23) Paul said, “You are all children of the light and children of the day.” (1 Thessalonians 5:5) The story of the Bible is the triumph of the light over darkness.
Which leads me to the blessing at the end of the Eucharist we celebrated at the Lutheran Clergy Retreat this week. A shell of consecrated oil was given to the bishop. He turned to the person on his left and anointed him and gave him the shell and that person turned to the person next to him and anointed her and so on. And as we were were anointed we were told something that we in turn passed on the person we anointed. And I want to pass it on to you. It's surprisingly simple and surprisingly profound. And it's this:
“Christ is light;
you are light;
be light to the world.”