Summary: Ministry looks impossible, and we want to run the other way. But when we do finally tackle it, and God redeems, then we want the credit. In His grace He assures us that we are not forgotten even though we are inappropriate.
All during this month we’ve worked together on the theme of compassion. Because we are a church which urgently needs to do ministry in this community; because we are a people with much to give and much to share, and with a place to share it, by the time this week is over we will have invested four Sundays and four Wednesday nights thinking together about compassion.
It’s been a particular joy for me to re-study and to work with four little books with big hearts, as I’ve called them. You may not have noticed that all four of these books, in addition to being short and somewhat obscure Old Testament books -- all four of them share some other qualities in common.
All four -- Esther, Ruth, Lamentations, and Jonah -- all four were written during or after the Exile. All four come after a period of tremendous calamity in the life of Gods people. And as such, they are attempts to redefine and rediscover what it means to be Gods people in a changing world.
Maybe I can put it this way: before the Exile, except for those prophetic voices crying in the wilderness, most people in Judah thought that the way you live as God’s people is that you go to the Temple, you perform the ritual acts, you bring the sacrifices, you keep yourself free from too much involvement with the wrong people. And if you do all of that, if you are generally a pretty good person living a pretty good life, all will be well. God will take care of you, all will be well. That’s what they thought.
But the experience of defeat and destruction at the hands of Babylon proved forever that that theology was hollow and empty. It is not enough just to sit· in the pews and be a pretty good person. It is not enough just to keep out of trouble and behave in a normal middle-class kind of way. That won’t do. And the people of God, after the devastating experience of Exile, struggled to rediscover and redefine their lives. That is what you find in the books of Esther, Ruth, Lamentations, and Jonah -- redefining the life of Gods people.
As you and I have discovered this month, they came to see that to be God’s people we must be a compassionate people. We must be an open, caring people. We must be a missionary people. The mission to which our God calls us, according to these little books with big hearts, is to be a compassionate, redemptive people right here in Takoma Park.
Today I am concluding this series with a big "what if". "What if" God succeeds? What if God succeeds in redeeming this community? What are we going to feel and how are we going to handle it? What if our God has success, through us and through our faithfulness? What will we do with God’s success, especially if we wanted credit for that success? How will we handle God’s success when we wanted it for ourselves?
You see, we are a success-driven people. We admire those who have arrived at a certain point of success in their lives. And this is all right. This is healthy. You need a success motive. You teachers know that. Give a child an assignment that he or she can accomplish, and it will motivate that child to tackle something bigger and more difficult the next time. Give the child an impossible task, and that child will become so discouraged that he will give up altogether and stop even trying to succeed. We all need some successes.
The issue is whether we are willing to share that success. The issue, in fact, is whether we are willing for God to succeed in what He wants to do. Does that sound strange? Who wouldn’t want and even expect Almighty God to succeed in reaching His goals? Well, follow the wonderful little short story inserted in our Bibles under the name, "Jonah".
Everyone knows about the great fish that swallowed Jonah. Not everyone, however, has really seen beyond that spectacular stuff to find out what the book is all about.
Jonah 1 :1-3
God told his prophet, Jonah, to go to Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrians, to preach repentance. And Jonah responded by running off in the opposite direction. He scurried down to the port of Joppa, asked the harbormaster, "What ship sails next and is it going anywhere except Nineveh?" And when they said, "Tarshish", out on the western coast of Spain, about as far away as the ancient world could imagine, Jonah said, "Give me a ticket, right now." And off he sailed, running from responsibility and running from God.
I say you know the fish part that comes next. But have you thought about the fishy part? Something is fishy here. Something doesn’t compute. How is it that a prophet of God, presumably called and consecrated, would run from his responsibility?