Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Cost of Change

The scriptures referred to are Jonah 3:1-10, 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 and Mark 1:14-20.

Is having a change of mind a good thing or not? For most of us, it depends on the final position one arrives at. If, in our estimation, your original position was the wrong one, then we applaud the sudden enlightenment of the prodigal son. If, however, the change was from our orthodoxy to a different stance, then we deplore the change as the act of someone going astray or even as a form of betrayal. All in all, we don't like people to change. Even if they do come over to our side, we are often suspicious of their motives. For better or for worse, we often see a change of mind as a sign of weakness.

Thus it shocks a lot of people to read in the Bible that God changes his mind, as he does in today's passage from Jonah. Surely God is always right. So how could he change his mind about anything? Doesn't the Bible say God is changeless?

There are 2 sources for the Christian conception of God. One is the Bible, of course. The other is a philosophical tradition that flows from Plato and especially from Aristotle. This second stream emphasizes the perfection of God, a God who affects everything else but who is not affected by anything. This God is far removed from the lustful, warlike, petty, flawed and very human gods of Greek mythology. But this passionless God is not identical to the God of the Bible. And when thinkers like Thomas Aquinas wed Christian theology to Greek philosophy, the result subtly distorts portions of our picture of God.

The God of the Bible is never the cool abstraction the philosophers idealize. He is a God who loves, who is symbolized by fire. His love is that which does not change. But that in turn means he responds to the various needs and decisions of those he loves: his creatures. A loving parent does not respond in the same way to his children fighting as to them playing together. Different behavior demands different responses. What should remain consistent is that what you say and do should always come out of your love for your children and your desire for what is best for them. So you encourage your child to learn about and explore his world while stopping him from sticking a fork into an electrical outlet. And when you cannot redirect a child from destructive or aggressive behavior, you confront the child and lay out the consequences of her bad behavior. But as any parent knows this doesn't work if you aren't willing to carry out the punishment. Kids can sense when you're bluffing.

And that's the context of what's happening in the Book of Jonah. Nineveh was the capitol of the Assyrian Empire, which eventually destroyed the Northern kingdom of Israel and carried its ten tribes into exile. Its arrogance, ruthlessness and violence were proverbial. King Shalmaneser III boasted of building a pyramid of human heads in front of an enemy's city. The prophet Nahum, whose entire book is a denunciation of Nineveh, wrote, “Ah, city of crime, utterly treacherous, full of violence, where killing never stops!” So you can understand Jonah's reluctance to deliver God's message to such a detested place.

When Jonah finally does announce God's judgment, the city responds in a surprising way. Its inhabitants repent. And that causes God to repent—yes, that's what the Hebrew word means and how it's translated 41 times in the Old Testament. God changes his mind. But he doesn't change it about the sins that the citizens of Nineveh had done in the past. He didn't change his mind about the standards of behavior he expects. We are told that he changes his mind about the calamity he had announced. In response to the people changing their minds about their sins, God changes his mind about punishing them.

The fact that God can change his mind about which actions he will take is a good thing. It makes forgiveness possible. It makes prayer possible. It means that what we do is important. If God were to simply stay on course regardless of our actions, then our lives would be meaningless. We would be like the nameless crowds in the background of Hollywood movies, just computer-generated window dressing for panoramic scenes. But our actions can affect how God reacts.

But those actions must be sincere. Our heavenly Father is not Homer Simpson, easily duped by Bart. God knows our hearts. When repenting, mere tears and declarations of regret are not enough. Especially inadequate are the words “I'm sorry if you were offended.” That is not an admission of guilt but of a breach in etiquette. It is not even an apology for what you've done but rather for how the other person reacted. A confession of sin is the one time when one ought to talk only about oneself, not share the blame with others.

God expects our actions to reflect our professed change of heart. Real repentance demands a changed life. Lots of people quote Jesus' lack of condemnation of the woman caught in adultery and forget that he tells her to “go and sin no more.” Jesus was not saying that he saw nothing wrong with what she did. He was disputing the mob's right to judge and execute her. Based on his reading of her change of heart, he pardons her.

As we see in Mark's gospel, repentance was very much at the heart of Jesus' message. And you would think that it would make it a very unpopular message. But when you know something is not right, you want someone to tell you the truth. When you are very sick, the last thing you want your doctor to tell you is there's nothing wrong with you. You want a diagnosis because then you will know what you are up against. I've seen as a nurse what I was taught in pastoral care class: in certain cultures, the family doesn't want the patient to be told anything negative. They think this is a mercy. But often the patient knows that something is wrong. He senses that the family and the nurses are tiptoeing around some very serious topic. And so the patient's fear and dread are increased because a nameless threat is much scarier than one that has a definition.

In the first century Judea and Galilee people knew that there was something wrong with their lives, their country and the world. And so Jesus' blunt diagnosis was welcome. He said it was our own sins, our falling short of God's standards, our lack of trust in him, our lack of love for him and for each other that held back the establishment of his kingdom. He told them bluntly that they would have to stop making excuses and instead make changes in their hearts and minds and lives in order to enter the kingdom. They would have to put their trust in Jesus, a hick who worked with his hands, as God's agent in laying the foundation for God's reign. They would have to disown themselves, take up their crosses and follow him. It was a hard message to accept but many realized it was better than the lies that the politicians, within their faith community as well as outside, were telling.

And some would have to turn their backs on more than just their sins. Ever wonder how Jesus chose his disciples? In Mark, it looks as if they are merely responding to some magical siren song when he says, “Come; follow me.” But John tells us that Andrew was among those who followed John the Baptizer. He heard John refer to Jesus as “the Lamb of God” and Andrew told his brother Peter. It's also probable that they told their fellow fishermen and partners James and John. When Jesus goes into the desert for 40 days the men go back to work on Lake Galilee. Then Jesus reappears and issues his invitation to them and they follow.

At this point Jesus may have invited others who are not mentioned because they did not follow him. We know that he invited others to follow him at a later time and most of them had excuses. But the twelve disciples, his core group, responded without hesitation. And they left more than their sins behind. They left businesses and family, too. Not because these things are bad but because Jesus was establishing the kingdom of God and had called them to help. Like soldiers they left their family and livelihoods behind because they realized their mission took precedence. And maybe that's why Jesus chose them. They understood the priority of what he was doing.

That scares us. We know that God's objectives take priority over our own. But in our hearts other things take priority over God—not only our families and our jobs but also our lifestyles, our interests, our hobbies, even our flaws. A lot of the fear has to do not just with losing something we love but with losing our identities. We define ourselves through these things: what we love, what we do, how we spend our time, even how we screw up. Leaving them behind means leaving parts of ourselves behind. It means disowning yourself. Which is part of following Jesus—perhaps the hardest part.

But it's the idea of giving up our family that really disturbs us. Would Jesus really ask us to do that? Well, of the Twelve, the only one we know was married was Peter. And we know from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians that Peter took his wife with him on his missionary journeys. So leaving behind one's family is not an arbitrary, “one size fits all” rule.

We have to connect leaving one's family for Jesus to what he said in Luke about families being divided over him. The pressure of family disapproval discouraged a lot of people from following Jesus. It still does, especially in cultures where family solidarity is valued over individual decisions. While Jesus denounced those who used religious excuses to get around doing their duty to their family, he also felt it was wrong not to do the right thing simply because your family was holding you back. When push comes to shove, God comes first. The real question is whether your family is supportive. Peter's wife obviously was. (Jesus did, after all, heal her mother!) but if she hadn't been, Peter would have had to make a real tough choice. And it couldn't have been easy for James and John to just up and leave their father in the middle of net mending to follow an itinerant preacher.

Jesus had a similar problem with his family. John's gospel tells us how his brothers mocked him. The synoptic gospels tell us they thought he was crazy and tried to grab him and forcibly bring him home. Even his mother thought he'd lost it and she, of all people, should have known better. So Jesus had to choose between doing what his family wanted and fulfilling his mission. We know how he chose but we can only imagine what it cost him.

Imagine what it was like when Paul Revere and the other riders spread the word of the advance on Lexington by the King's Regulars. The Minutemen easily had dozens of good reasons not to leave their families and face an army of the greatest superpower of their day. Some had sick kids at home; some couldn't spare the time from their farms; some had to disentangle themselves from sobbing wives and children urging them not to get shot or get hung as traitors. But if they hadn't gone, the British would have arrested John Hancock and Samuel Adams and seized the patriots' arsenal.

Or imagine the resistance followers of Martin Luther King Jr. encountered from their families. They knew they would be set upon by dogs, be knocked off their feet by the full force of fire hoses and be beaten with billy clubs by police. But if the Freedom Marchers had made their fearful families happy, they would never have seen those families free to vote or to buy the house they wanted or to get the education they wanted or to get the job they wanted. By disregarding their families' objections, they helped their families and others.

When God calls us, he expects us to respond, not to make excuses. Some of those excuses might be reasonable and even commendable. But we must have the discipline of soldiers and realize that our mission is no less a matter of life and death. We do not go to destroy but to save. We have no weapons but the Word of God and the Spirit of God. We can but pray and teach and love. And we must travel light. We must leave behind all encumbrances. That includes our sins, obviously, but also anything that keeps us from doing the right thing. The list of obstacles will be different for each of us but we must recognize them for what they are.

And for most of us that will not mean leaving our family. In fact, for many of us our family is our mission field. And they are the toughest because they know you and they know if you are displaying signs of a God-centered life. Whenever you are tempted to act holier than thou, family members can be counted on to take you down a peg or two. Which means that when we approach family on spiritual matters, the best approach is to be humble. In fact that is the best approach to take with anyone.

To paraphrase Martin Luther said, evangelism is really just one beggar telling another one where to find bread. Jesus is the Bread of life. We are not the Baker, just beggars. If we look at it that way, the biggest cost to following Jesus is giving up our arrogance, our personal pride, our egotistical need to seen as perfect or larger than life. That's what Jesus meant when he said to follow him, we must first disown ourselves. If we leave the heavy weight of our egos at the foot of Jesus' cross, picking up our own cross won't be nearly the burden we fear it to be. Especially if you consider not just the cost but the reward. All drastic changes mean choosing one thing over another. But the best changes leave you with much more than you left behind. In Matthew 19, the disciples said to Jesus, “Lord, we have left everything to follow you. What then will there be for us?” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things,...everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.” (Matt 19:26-29) What we give up to follow Jesus is temporary. Even the best of it--wealth, power, acclaim. It was never going to last forever. But what we receive from him will. And chief among what we receive is ourselves, our true selves as God intended us to be, created out of his love, object of his love and channel of that love for all eternity.

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