Sunday, January 25, 2009

"...Sweet Miracle of Our Empty Hands."

In the book The Diary of a Country Priest, the author, George Bernanos, describes the ministry of a self-effacing and unsuccessful country pastor. Most of the time the pastor is inept. The village he serves ignores him, and his parish all but abandons him. There’s one wealthy parishioner who is particularly harsh. In part it’s because of her own personal bitterness toward God. As this woman approaches her death, however, the priest somehow breaks through and helps her surrender to God’s eternal life. Later he reflects on the event: “’Be at peace,’ I told her. And she knelt to receive this peace. May she keep it forever. It will be I that gave it to her. Oh, miracle, thus to be able to give what we ourselves do not possess, sweet miracle of our empty hands.”

The lesson which the story of Jonah -- all four chapters of the book -- holds out to us is one of the most important in the Bible. Jonah, clearly, was a man of “empty hands”, empty by his own stubborn choice. Jonah had a unique call from God to go and speak in God’s place to the people of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrians, one of Israel’s hated enemies. God commissioned Jonah to call that people to repentance, but he would’nt go. “...Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.”

As you probably know from reading the story, the ship, which he boards, and the crew experience a dreadful, life-threatening storm. Eventually the sailors suspect that Jonah may be the cause of God’s apparent displeasure. Jonah, indeed, confesses that he’s fleeing the Lord’s presence and from his responsibilities. As the storm grows worse, Jonah suggests that if the sailors throw him overboard, God might be appeased, since he’s the cause of the trouble. Reluctantly, they do so.

“And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah...” Jonah suddenly has a lot of time on his hands to reflect and get things right within himself, with God, and with his neighbor: three whole days and nights! He begins to pray, and his prayer gives us some sense that perhaps it’s beginning to dawn on Jonah that God is the One who’s really in charge here. At length, God has the fish unceremoniously spit Jonah out on the dry land.

On the second try, in Chapter 3, God convinces a freshly-motivated Jonah to finally take on the mission to Nineveh. Apparently, Nineveh was a
b-i-i-i-g city, because it took three days and three nights to walk across it! Jonah gets only a third of the way across the city (a day’s walk) with his call to repentance when he experiences what surely is every pastor’s dream. “The people of Nineveh believed God.” After all his fussing and running away, this prophet had only eight words to proclaim: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” The city grinds to a halt; they proclaim a fast; everyone, including the king and even the animals, puts on sackcloth; and the whole city turns from evil and violence, to God. God assesses the situation and, in the author’s description, has a change of heart. God is so impressed with their attitude that God surrounds them with mercy, forgiveness and compassion.

Now, you’d think that with that kind of success Jonah would’ve been beside himself with joy and appreciation, and would’ve recommitted his own life to God on the spot, and preached to those Ninevites with a fervor that would make Billy Graham seem like a first-year church school teacher. But Jonah’s response is to be
angry! You see, Jonah struggles, as we all do, to understand the God he serves. How could God allow God’s “soft” side, God’s mercy, to leave unfulfilled the oracle of just judgment which Godself had pushed Jonah to pronounce upon these godless, violent aliens? God “had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction God had threatened...” Jonah’s heart is full of resentment and bitterness toward God for sending him to a non-Israelite, non-covenanted people (the wrong “denomination”, so to speak!), and he resents the Ninevites because all along, on the journey and now, both the sailors and now the Ninevites acted with more faith than he, God’s prophet, had. They repented, changed their lives, opened their hearts to God the Mighty One, while Jonah remains empty-handed and without peace.

In a gesture that make us further question his mental stability, Jonah removes himself to a tent in “East Nineveh” and waits. In his hard heart Jonah suspects that Nineveh’s conversion is only temporary. Sooner or later, he figures, they’ll go back to business as usual, and then we’ll see how much lovingkindness and mercy God is willing to show them. So,
Jonah waits.

But it never happens. Their conversion is real. And Jonah is left sitting there, baking in the hot sun. The Lord, “gracious and full of compassion...loving to everyone...faithful in all God’s words and merciful in all God’s deeds...”, allows a plant to grow to provide some shade for Jonah. Jonah would never say it, for he’s not speaking to God at the moment, but the shade of the plant feels pretty good. The next day, however, Jonah notices that the leaves are slowly dropping off one by one; the plant is withering, dying -- very much like the way Jonah is feeling inside -- and his depression deepens. A fat worm has found the succulent plant, and soon there’s no more shade. The sun is so relentless that Jonah almost suffers heat-stroke, and Jonah is angry at God for killing the plant, let alone for making the Assyrian Empire’s capital city the beneficiary of God’s lovingkindness. In his deep despair, Jonah voices a death-wish. “It is better for me to die than to live.” You and I would phrase that a little differently: “It isn’t fair!”; “Why?”; “Why me?”; “What kind of God are you?” God gently sets the record straight: “You pity the plant for which
you didn’t labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night, and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh...?”

There are a couple of things which you and I might take away from all this. Like Jonah, you and I individually, and collectively as the Church, all have a unique call through our Baptism to do God’s mission and ministry. And that’s the point: it’s
God’s call and God’s work. Anything we do should be in accord with what God wants. Could it be that part of Jonah’s problem was his struggle to understand how God had changed his role as prophet from being a deliverer of oracles to that of being a persuader? God has the option to change God’s decisions when people truly repent. When that occurs, we whom God sends are called to preach, to model, to arouse a change in others’ hearts. And that’s hard to do, perhaps impossible, if your own heart hasn’t been changed, if it lacks much love and mercy as it tries to dispense justice in the name of God.

God’s will for us and in us, individually and collectively, can be accomplished only if you and I are willing to humbly acknowledge our own unlovingness, our abrasive rigidity, our human inadequacy, our inability of ourselves to hold out anything to God or to each other except our empty hands. The “sweet miracle of our empty hands” is
God’s. When you and I are too proud, too unloving, too controlling, to allow God’s Spirit to do God’s will, in God’s way in our lives and in the Church’s life, we can be sure that, like Jonah, we’re running in the opposite direction from God’s Presence. You and I are called daily to test the authenticity of those words which we pray so often: “...For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever...”

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