Sunday, September 18, 2022

Fishers of Men

When I picture it, I imagine Habakkuk tossing and turning one night, on his bed in his temple apartment. He's not having a pleasant night's sleep. He's having a nightmare – and no wonder, after hearing the news of what happened in Ashkelon when they tried to hold out against Babylon. The city destroyed, the king caught and taken away as a captive... Horrible to think of. Horrible to dream of, too. But now Habakkuk dreams such a dream.  In his dream, Jerusalem was underwater, but that was alright – he was a fish. They all were. A big school of fish, but Habakkuk recognized people he knew in the waking world. That big fish sticking with his head out of the palace, that was the king. Oh, that fish nearby in the temple court, that was one of Habakkuk's priest friends, Buzi. They swam and swam, but big fish kept biting smaller fish, gobbling them up – injustice under the sea.

Then a splash, and a few hooks descended from... well, what was there above the water? He felt so immersed in his dream, he could hardly recall. But he saw the hooks stick themselves into the mouths of a few colorful fish near the palace, and draw them up, up, and away. And for a moment, it seemed like it might stir up the pond. But the big fish went right back to eating the littler fish and polluting the water. Soon, another hook came, and it hooked the king fish. A small net splashed down into the water, scooping up many bigger fish and even smaller but colorful fish. Buzi's son Ezekiel was one – he was just close enough for the cast net to catch. Habakkuk watched in horror as up, up, and away they went, hauled out of their watery world into who-knows-what...

But the big fish left kept gobbling up smaller fish at an even faster rate. The new biggest fish, the new king, had his fins all over the situation. The water pollution got worse and worse. Until finally, a massive net dropped into the water. Weights at the bottom, floats at the top, it stretched as far as little fishy eyes could see in either direction, and it curled around the city. There it waited forebodingly, until at last it rushed in, the weights smashing Jerusalem, smashing the palace, smashing the temple. And all the fish, as they bolted up or down from the destruction, got caught. Habakkuk ran into the net, couldn't squeeze his way through the mesh. He felt himself dragged upward, upward... suddenly out of the water. Flopping and flailing in panic, his gills dry, his eyes wide, he fell to the floor of a boat, and heard voices speaking in the tongue of Babylon.....

And Habakkuk woke up in a cold sweat. That, at least, is what I imagine. Over the past few years up to this point, Habakkuk has been deeply concerned, as a temple singer and cult prophet, about what he's been hearing and seeing in Judah's society – the evil that surged back up as soon as righteous King Josiah was dead and his heir Jehoahaz was trapped in Egypt. It had seemed God's Law had lost its effectiveness, that unchanged hearts had outlasted a changed society. Habakkuk cried out with all the questions he'd brought from the downcast and downtrodden (Habakkuk 1:2-4). And in return, God had directed his attention above Judah's bubble to the international stage. God had spoken of a dreadful wonder he was doing: raising up a Chaldean dynasty to lead Babylon, to not only shatter Nineveh but to spread violence throughout the earth. It was hard to believe these distant reports could have any relevance to Judah, but God told Habakkuk they would, and that this evil's rise was his doing, his tool (Habakkuk 1:5-11). And now they'd been here. They'd scared off Egypt's armies, taken the reins as Judah's overlord, made an example of Ashkelon. And where Babylon's rise against Assyria had seemed good news just a few years ago, now the cure looked as bad as the disease. Habakkuk felt confused, frustrated, disgusted – if the Babylonians are who they act like, how can their rise be in God's hand? How can their idolatry and brutality be tolerated by a God whose eyes are too pure to look at evil (Habakkuk 1:12-13)?

Habakkuk has been troubled by God's answer ever since he heard it. And now that he's begun to witness what it looks like in practice, he's all the more bothered by what God professes to have unleashed. In the beginning, the Lord had said to the first human beings, “Fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea” (Genesis 1:28). Humans are humans, fish are fish, and there's a clear pecking order: fish are subjected to human dominion. But now, Habakkuk sings out in tears, God has turned him and all his friends into fish, given them the place of fish in the order of creation. Although the Babylonians are so beastly – like leopards and wolves and vultures (Habakkuk 1:8) – God has given them alone the dominion bequeathed to Adam and Eve. “You make mankind like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler” (Habakkuk 1:14).

When Habakkuk thinks of the way Babylon has been treating nations left and right, the way they've begun to treat even Judah – which, mind you, is still the kingdom of the sons of David, still the priestly nation, still the place where the LORD God Almighty dwells – well, Habakkuk feels demeaned, feels depersonalized, feels dehumanized. God has demoted them to the status of sad little fish, and in this unfolding nightmare, God seems to keep looking the other way as Nebuchadnezzar takes one fishing expedition after another. One day, he catches a king on his hook. Another day, he casts a throwing-net over the upper-crust of this or that city. And in extreme cases, he threatens to stretch out his long dragnet from pole to pole and scoop up whole populations – entire cities, entire nations – and haul them out of their natural environment, lift them away from their lake and everything they've known, to be dumped in some Babylonian aquarium. “He brings all of them up with a hook, he drags them out with his net, he gathers them in his dragnet – so he rejoices and is glad” (Habakkuk 1:15).

Nebuchadnezzar may be glad, Nebuchadnezzar may find cause for rejoicing, but Habakkuk sure doesn't. And God allows all of this even though the Babylonians are both brutally violent and stupidly pagan. They worship, for all intents and purposes, their own military might and prowess. They rely on every victory to vindicate their false faith. In Babylon itself, literal fishermen were tasked with supplying fish for the cultic meals in Babylon's temples, and it was from these fish offerings that Babylon's priests ate.1 And so Habakkuk charges that the Babylonian fisher of men, to express his grateful joy for all this brutal military fishing, “sacrifices to his net and burns incense to his dragnet, for by them his share is sumptuous and his food is fat” (Habakkuk 1:16).2

But while Babylon is living large in this idolatrous frenzy of tyranny and destruction, Habakkuk feels like a fish in a small and vulnerable pond. And he's not worried just for himself, or even just for Judah. The Babylonians, militarily speaking, are setting out to be chronic overfishers. In killing thousands and taking thousands captive in every place they go, it's like they leave this or that pond empty, throwing entire ecosystems out of balance. Is God happy with that? Is he going to let it go on? Will this continue until the whole world has been fished to the point of a mass extinction event? “Is he,” Babylon the fisher of men, “to keep on emptying his net, and mercilessly killing nations forever?” (Habakkuk 1:17). Will Habakkuk's nightmare come true? That's what Habakkuk wants to know. That's the challenge Habakkuk's laying at God's feet. It's not too late, Habakkuk hopes, for God to find a less dreadful way, a more pure and humane and human way. “I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me...” (Habakkuk 2:1).

And there we leave Habakkuk. His nightmare did become a reality, though not a universal one or eternal one. As he and the other prophets warned, Nebuchadnezzar led quite a few fishing trips to the Promised Pond, until at last his dragnet cleared out Jerusalem all but entirely, and settled them in exile. It was a mass deportation – first a few, then a bunch, then the nation. Buzi's son Ezekiel was one of the bunch. But in rural Babylonia, when Ezekiel's thirtieth birthday saw him grieving the life he'd never live, a vision called him to be a prophet. Years later, in his last visions, he saw dusty bones come to life as a mighty army of hope. He saw Jerusalem remeasured, bigger and better than ever. He saw a new temple vastly outshining the one where Habakkuk had worked. And he saw a river of life come flooding out, deeper and wider, so potent it could take the sterile Dead Sea and make it a paradise. “And wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish... Fishermen will stand beside the sea. From Engedi to Eneglaim, it will be a place for the spreading of nets. Its fish will be of very many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea” (Ezekiel 47:9-10).

Ezekiel's vision was packed densely with symbolism, and is all the more surprising because Judah never had a fishing industry. Habakkuk never went on a fishing trip, and neither did any of his neighbors. It just wasn't a thing you could very feasibly do there. But Ezekiel sees God's people as fishermen spreading out their nets in what was once the most lifeless place, and catching more fish than Hebrew had words for. And this is a great mystery. For in time, people came to read one of Jeremiah's prophecies, not as judgment, but as hope: “I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their fathers. Behold, I am sending for many fishers, says the LORD, and they shall catch them” (Jeremiah 16:15-16) – fishers to undo the Babylonian fishing of men.

And then Jesus Christ entered the world. He pointed to his very own body as the Temple which Ezekiel saw (John 2:21). From him would flow “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal” (Revelation 22:1), the Holy Spirit gushing out of any faithful heart united to his (John 7:38). In him, Ezekiel's prophecy was beginning to come true. And so, as he walked the shores of Galilee where a fishing industry had now begun, he came face-to-face with ordinary fishermen casting their nets into the lake for tilapia and carp and sardines. And it was here he found his first few disciples. “Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God and saying, 'The time is fulfilled! And the kingdom of God is at hand! Repent and believe in the gospel.' Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew (the brother of Simon) casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them: 'Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men'” (Mark 1:14-17).

What he said to them had the potential to be mighty disturbing. Had Habakkuk been standing by to hear Jesus say it, Habakkuk might've shuddered with dread. Because the Babylonians were fishers of men. It was wicked Babylon, idolatrous Babylon, that treated the nations like ponds of fish to hook and net and scoop for their own use. Babylon's 'fishing' was a merciless military action of extraction. Habakkuk might well have run over, interrupted Jesus, and asked, “Oh no! Are you raising up a New Babylon in Galilee?” Is that what this is?

And Jesus' answer would be no. This is not about the bad news of Babylon, but about the good news of God. Babylon's fishing of men was predatory, meant to deprive and dehumanize and destroy. It extracted people from their natural environment to haul them into an unnatural one, to put them in a more vulnerable and unhealthy position – that was the Babylonian fishing of men. But Jesus is appointing fishers of men who will do the opposite. For even in Galilee and Judea, let alone throughout the world, people are living like fish boxed up in aquariums of tainted water. Oh, they've acclimated to it, to the point where pure water feels like burning, seems toxic at first touch. But these tainted waters – waters of sin and death, under the devil's captivity – are slowly killing all the fishy people who've forgotten where their natural environment is, and that they were made to swim in strength and life and glory. Bred in a hurtful and unnatural captivity, we fish need to be caught, for our own good, and released into the heavenly waters we were made for. Only there can we rediscover our deeper humanity.

And so Jesus called Simon and Andrew and the rest to become for him “fishers of men,” but for the most un-Babylonian of reasons. And the same call he gave to them, he gives in some little measure to you and to me, to all who've already been snared by the gospel, all who've already been reintroduced to the holy baptismal waters, all who are re-acclimating – however painful that struggle – to the heavenly waters we were made for. We, too, are summoned to be a crew of fishers of men, likewise catching our fish, catching people, in the gospel.

Fishing is an act of love. And we've been told how love behaves. Any experienced fisherman knows he needs a great deal of patience when out fishing, doesn't he? And when Paul starts talking love, what's the first thing he says? “Love is patient” (1 Corinthians 13:4). Love looks like a patient fisherman, waiting all through the day by the side of the river or sitting in his boat, listening to the crickets chirp and frogs croak as he waits and waits and waits for a bite on the line. He's not rushed, not stirred up by urgency, no matter how hungry. He accepts the limits of his control over the situation, entrusts himself to God, and patiently fishes. And so must we, as fishers of men. We aren't sent into the world to hard-sell people, not called to use pressure tactics. Too often, we Evangelicals have tended to evangelize in the manner of blast fishing! But love is patient, and love is kind.

What else does Paul say? “Love does not envy or boast” (1 Corinthians 13:4). What's one of the most popular stereotypes about fishermen? The fish story. “It was this big!” We tell tales of the one that got away. We show that photograph of us next to our catch. We boast in the size of what we caught, we envy our neighbor his catch. Maybe that's good enough for fishermen after the flesh. Maybe it's good enough for Babylonians, too. But when Jesus calls for fishers of men, envy and boasting lose their place. Sometimes, we Evangelicals have tended to bring envy and boasting back into it, though. Ministries justify themselves based on counting up their massive catches or landing the city's bigger fish – that's how they promote themselves and raise funds, after all. Or we sit in envy of other believers who reel in what we wish we'd reached. But we're all part of Jesus' fishing syndicate. In this fellowship of fishermen, we aren't competitors, to envy or boast over one another. To spend your days hauling a single sardine into life is as much a cause for joy as to land marlins by the millions.

Paul adds that “love... is not arrogant or rude,” that “it does not insist on its own way” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). The Babylonians sure did. They used heavy-handed military coercion in their fishing of men – that was the whole point. But our fishing is not to be so. Whether fishing with hook-and-sinker for one or two, or casting a net for a group, or spreading out the dragnet between churches in a great evangelistic campaign, we must not be arrogant, not triumphalistic. We must not be rude and inconsiderate – we are fishers of men, of human beings, who never lose their full humanity, who are never merely targets to be won or points to be scored. We must not insist on our own way, piling all our political and cultural agendas atop the gospel that are foreign to the gospel. We are not sent to coerce, whether at sword-point or word-point. Love is all the method, love is all the goal.

Paul continues that “love... is not irritable” (1 Corinthians 13:5). Should we be surprised if fish try to escape the net, swim away when hooked, make it work to pull them in? Isn't it natural to resist a shocking change like capture? Just so, in fishing for people, even though it's good for them, we'll meet resistance. So we might get frustrated, might be tempted to throw our rod in the river and walk away. But we must not do that. Love is not irritable. (Besides, our lashing out will scare the fish!) Paul goes on: “Love... does not count up wrongdoing” (1 Corinthians 13:5). We might be tempted to look at some fish, some people, as unworthy or unlikely to be caught. We count up wrongdoing. But love doesn't do that, either. Love fishes in unlikely and unpleasant places. Love dissolves all prejudices. It doesn't matter how diseased the fish may seem – it's in an unnatural environment, after all, and that's the point. Just you wait to see what healing the heavenly water does.

Paul further says that “love... does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). If we do, we aren't fishing with love. Too often, we're tempted to fish with deceitful lures, a bait-and-switch that affirms that the heavenly waters will feel no different than the tainted waters of sin and death. We cannot fish honestly for people, cannot cast the gospel-hook or gospel-net with integrity, while affirming sin. That would be to rejoice at wrongdoing. Nor are we sent to dangle flashy artificial lures to catch the eye or to amuse the fish with gimmicks so we can watch them swim in and out of the holes we've cut in the net for their comfort. Our hook and net are the gospel and its truth; our all-natural bait is love itself. We hold out true examples of fish coming to life, thriving in purer waters. Love rejoices in the truth, and we're here to fish accordingly.

Finally, says Paul, “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). A fishing trip may be easy and relaxing, but the life of a professional fisherman is another story. It calls for hardiness, for it sails through hardship. But amidst it all, a loving fisherman will bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things. Because this is his mission. This is his lifeblood. This is more than what he does; this is who and why he is. And when that's true, you bear and endure, you believe and hope. And nothing less does Jesus ask when he calls fishermen. He isn't offering a hobby. He's instituting a life.

And to what end? The Babylonians fished for men, and – in Habakkuk's image – they sacrificed to their net and burned incense to their dragnet. They integrated fishing into their religion, and on the literal plane they brought their catch into their temple as an offering, a sacrifice. And maybe it's not for nothing that Ezekiel's vision of Israelite fishermen was downstream of his vision of a glorious temple where God would dwell again. Because where the Babylonians mercilessly killed and sacrificed to their net, we also fish for people for sacrifice – but not like the Babylonians did. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). The fish we catch come alive when they swim upstream to God's temple and offer themselves – ourselves – as living sacrifices to the gospel, for the gospel and the temple are none other than Jesus Christ himself, the Sacrificial Fish on whom we feast in the holy courts. And all God's fishy people can come alive, can become the worship we were meant to be, only as we become living sacrifices in Jesus. That isn't merciless. That's mercy unending.

It's for that mercy, it's for that love, it's for that living sacrifice that we're sent fishing – fishing for men, fishing for humans, not after the manner of Babylon, but after the manner of our Savior. Thanks be to God! He teaches us how to fish his way for his prize. Now may the fishing be good indeed, in Jesus' blessed name. Amen.

 Prayer
Most magnificent God of earth and sky and sea, Father of all that lives and moves and has its being in you, but most especially Father of those netted in your gospel: We thank you for saving us from the kingdom of darkness and bringing us into the kingdom of your Son to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.  Long ago, one of those saints, a teacher in your Church, depicted Jesus as
a Fish of exceedingly great size and perfect, which a holy virgin drew with her hands from a fountain, and this it ever gives to its friends to eat, it having wine of great virtue and giving it mingled with bread.  Father, make us friends of faith, show us how to be worthy and where to eat this Perfect Fish under the outward forms of bread and wine.  Bring us into the school of this Perfect Fish, to ever swim after him.  Make us, too, fishers of men and women and children, fishers to catch all people with your gospel by love, and to lead them from darkness to light, from death to life, and deeper into holy and heavenly waters.  And make us all, catchers and catch, living sacrifices united to your Son and his sacrifice most holy.  For by this, and this alone, can we become holy and acceptable to our God.  Without holiness, we can never swim the heavenly sea, and for nothing else than to swim in you eternally were we made, beholding the bright abyss of beatitude as perfect love gazes into perfect love.  So give us in this life the grace of true fishermen and healthy fish.  O Lord, show us favor!  O Lord, grant us success!  In Jesus' name.  Amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

A Dreadful Wonder

It was a warm Texas morning in August 2001, and at the Prairie Chapel Ranch, a CIA agent was on hand to discuss with the president today's top-secret daily brief. The heading of one portion: “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US.” He'd been trouble for years. In February 1998, Osama bin Muhammad bin Laden had released a declaration of war, complaining that “for over seven years, the United States has been occupying the most sacred of the Islamic lands, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors...”1 Later that year, he gave an interview tarring Americans as “a people whose votes are won when innocents die, whose leader commits adultery and great sins and then sees his popularity rise – a vile people who have never understood the meaning of values.”2 And he argued for a religious obligation to “hate Americans, hate Jews, and hate Christians.”3 And now, the briefing explained to the president, “after US missile strikes on his base in Afghanistan in 1998, Bin Ladin told followers he wanted to retaliate in Washington. … FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.”4 Unbeknownst to American intelligence, nine months after having given that interview, Bin Laden heard news coverage of an angry pilot who, in October 1999, crashed his airplane deliberately off the New England coast to spite his boss; and Bin Laden's immediate thought was to imagine the statement it would've made if the pilot had targeted a financial complex.5 From there... the rest is tragic history.

Nearly two thousand miles west of Bin Laden's Afghani hideaway and over twenty-six hundred years earlier, September approached as another man stood amidst the devastation he'd rained down on the greatest city in the world. That man was Nabopolassar, a Chaldean who fourteen years earlier had managed to lay claim to a throne in Babylon. Babylon and its surrounding region, historic Akkad, had long been held down by Assyrian rule as part of their empire, and had been nearly destroyed by the Assyrian king Sennacherib six decades before Nabopolassar took power. Not unlike Bin Laden's declaration in 1998, Nabopolassar too issued a declaration, saying that “the city of Sennacherib..., plunderer of Babylon, its roots I shall pluck out and the foundations of the land I shall obliterate.”6 And, again not unlike Bin Laden, Nabopolassar saw himself as a deeply religious man, describing himself as “Nabopolassar, the humble, the reverent, the one who worships the gods.”7

“When I was young,” he'd said, “although I was the son of a nobody, I constantly sought the sanctuaries of my lords Nabu and Marduk,” two of the chief Babylonian gods. And they “called me to the lordship over land and people. … The Assyrian, who had ruled Akkad because of divine anger and had oppressed the people of the country with his heavy yoke, I – the weak one, the powerless one... – chased them out of the land of Akkad, and I had them throw off their yoke.”8 Nabopolassar led an uprising to liberate his land from the Assyrian presence.

But in the end, it wasn't enough to push the Assyrians out. They had to be terrorized in their own land. That, Nabopolassar believed, wasn't his own idea – it was a divine inspiration, a religious mission: “On the orders of Nabu and Marduk, who love my kingship..., I killed the [Assyrian] and turned his lands into tells and ruin heaps.”9 And to cap it off, Nabopolassar – with his Median allies from the east – had besieged the Assyrian capital of Nineveh for three months.10 “They laugh at every fortress, for they pile up earth” in a siege ramp “and take it” (Habakkuk 1:10). And so they did. Breaking through Nineveh's wide gates, they massacred men young and old, women, even children; they toppled stone from atop stone; they set fires, leaving a thick layer of ash in the wreckage.11 It was there that Nabopolassar sat in triumph, enthroned over the ashen rubble.

He thought of his sons – “Nebuchadnezzar, my firstborn son, beloved of my heart,” and “Nabu-shum-lishir, his close brother..., the younger brother, my darling” – and their needs and futures.12 Babylon's infrastructure and economy had been shattered by decades of foreign rule and war. The plunder taken from Nineveh was a start, but not enough. Babylon would need tribute and resources to thrive. So too, Nabopolassar couldn't risk that rival powers like the Urartians would fill the vacuum led by the Assyrian collapse.13 And so, alongside cleaning up the remains of Assyria's government-in-exile, Nabopolassar and his troops set their minds to “march through the breadth of the earth and seize dwellings not their own” (Habakkuk 1:6). But again, it wasn't for purely secular goals. Nabopolassar believed he was on a mission from his gods: “When the great lord Marduk gave me land and people to rule over, he ordered me to plunder my enemy's land.”14 To him, that terrorism is justice.

And so the Babylonians marched quickly back and forth between home and the field – year after year “they fly like an eagle swift to devour,” with “their horses swifter than leopards, more fierce than the evening wolves” (Habakkuk 1:8), burning and plundering cities in the Urartian mountains and capturing cities on the banks of the Euphrates.15 These were small states, hardly able to put up a resistance like the great world powers could. Nabopolassar was practically mocking them: “At kings they scoff, and at rulers they laugh..., then they sweep by like the wind and go on” (Habakkuk 1:10-11).

It was during all this that the temple musician Habakkuk had been praying to the LORD, the God of Israel, with a focus on Judah's society and Judah's woes – the local injustice, the local violence, the local misrule. We heard last Sunday about all the problems Jeremiah and Habakkuk were noticing in these years, after the swift collapse of King Josiah's reforms after his death, and the return to practical Egyptian slavery under King Jehoiakim. In trying to minister to God's people in song and prophecy, Habakkuk gathered all the tears and fears of the downcast and downtrodden and poured them as burning question marks at God's feet (Habakkuk 1:2-4).

In response, the LORD calls on not just Habakkuk alone, but all the scoffing and prideful of Judah who will hear the words he passes on, to lift up their eyes from their own internal affairs and consider the world beyond themselves. “Look among the nations, and see; wonder, and be astounded! For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation … They are dreaded and fearsome; their justice and dignity go forth from themselves” (Habakkuk 1:5-7). And God goes on, in the verses that follow, to detail in vivid pictures just how ferocious and hungry the Babylonians will be for captives, dwellings, and plunder (Habakkuk 1:8-11).

And I wonder if Habakkuk can see, as God speaks to and through him, what's to come. Because at the moment, the Babylonians don't seem like a major concern. It's Egypt that killed King Josiah, it's Egypt that kidnapped King Jehoahaz, it's Egypt that put King Jehoiakim on the throne – Egypt's the problem, and the Babylonians are far away, only meddling in a few petty cities to the distant northeast. But in a year or two at most, Nabopolassar will get sick, sick enough to send his eldest son Nebuchadnezzar to go face the Egyptians and Assyrians in battle at Carchemish. It'll be Babylon's greatest victory, chasing Pharaoh back to Egypt. Not long after the battle closes, Nebuchadnezzar will hear word of his father's death, and rush back to Babylon to be crowned king on September 7.16 Just like his father, Nebuchadnezzar sees himself as a deeply religious man on a mission: “the reverent servant who is very attentive to and mindful of the will of the gods, true heir of Nabopolassar king of Babylon, am I,” he says.17 Turning right around, he'll promptly head west, and before you know it he'll be on Jehoiakim's doorstep, squeezing Judah and all her neighbors for tribute and plunder, and setting in motion the chain of events that will lead to Judah's greatest national catastrophe of the era – something like their 9/11.

The message God brings to Habakkuk, then, is an unexpected one. Presidential briefing aside, no one saw 9/11 coming. On September 10, an artist working at the World Trade Center mused to herself, “Nothing can happen to this building.”18 When hijackings were reported, people in the Federal Aviation Administration wondered, “How could a hijacker force the pilot... to fly into the building?”, since “there had never been a situation where hijackers ever flew the plane.”19 And when the Pentagon was hit, the assistant secretary of defense remembers: “I thought there must have been a car bomb. What's extraordinary to me is that we knew that two commercial air liners had hit the World Trade Center, a terrorist attack, and smart people were guessing it was al-Qaeda. Yet when something bad happened here, it didn't occur to us that it was another airliner.”20 In much the same way, God was briefing Judah, but “you would not believe if told” (Habakkuk 1:5).

The message God brings to Habakkuk is also a devastating one. We all have a sense of the horrible, immense evil brought to our shores twenty-one years ago today by those who believed themselves divinely authorized to terrorize us. And just the same, the Babylonians were poised to bring a horrible, immense evil to Judah. First they'll come and demand submission, and when the Philistine city of Ashkelon – closest to Egypt – refuses, Nebuchadnezzar will make an example of it: “He marched on Ashkelon, he took it..., seized its king, pillaged and plundered it; he reduced the city to a heap of rubble.”21 A few years later, Nebuchadnezzar will besiege Jerusalem, and after three months he'll take the young new king Jeconiah, his family, the elite, and skilled laborers captive, and leave Josiah's other son to rule as King Zedekiah. But when even Zedekiah reigns in unrighteousness and rebellion, Nebuchadnezzar will come again and besiege the city a year and a half or more, leading to mass starvation, before finally breaking in, wrecking everything, and burning even God's holy temple (where Habakkuk works) to ashes – just like Nineveh, so even Jerusalem and her temple.

And in light of that, it disturbs Habakkuk that God is taking credit for what's to come. The LORD is clear about at least one thing: I am doing a work..., I am raising up the Chaldeans” (Habakkuk 1:5-6). With this mental picture of exactly what the Chaldeans were planning, you can understand why Habakkuk and his hearers would be upset! Can you imagine a prophet shouting in Manhattan in August 2001 that God said, “I am raising up al-Qaeda”? How would people have reacted? How does the hypothetical feel even today? And yet that's much the equivalent of God's message in these verses.

Now, God himself describes them as “guilty men whose own might is their god” (Habakkuk 1:11). And so too, Habakkuk has to concede: “O LORD, you have ordained them as a judgment” (Habakkuk 1:12). It was Judah's choices that got them into this situation of suffering – Judah's behavior had given them no grounds to claim a special exemption. But Habakkuk does have an objection. Habakkuk's been complaining about Judah being a violent place, and God turns his attention to the Babylonians, who “all come for violence” (Habakkuk 1:9). Is violence plus violence really going to equal peace? And if the LORD God of Israel is really the one raising up the Chaldeans, still Nabopolassar sure doesn't think so – he's acting in the name of his idols (Nabu, Marduk, and the rest of their crew). Theirs are pagan religious motives, not an act of service to God. If God chooses them as his tool, doesn't that run the risk of endorsement or confusion? God, Habakkuk says, “cannot look at wrong,” so how can God tolerate it when Nabopolassar or his wicked son “swallows up the man more righteous than he” (Habakkuk 1:13)? What sense does it make to try writing straight with crooked lines – for a righteous God to fix human injustice by bigger human injustice, or for a pure God to wash Judah's stains clean with mud?

That's what Habakkuk wants to know. It's what we'd like to know, too, especially today. This is not the passage that gives us those answers. But it is a passage that calls for a response. Habakkuk is understandably disturbed. And many in Judah are scoffing. God has spoken of something truly dreadful. But he invites us to view it as a wonder – not something wonderful, in our modern sense of excellent and good, but something astonishing that yet ought to be believed because we've been told (Habakkuk 1:5). As unexpected and devastating and morally troubling as the message might be, it challenges Judah to believe the unbelievable, to respond to events before they happen, and to behold the dreadful wonder as God's work with a claim on their lives.

This dreadful wonder is yet God's work, God's plan that – despite all appearances to the contrary – is a plan to bring peace and not evil, to yield a future and a hope (Jeremiah 29:11). For if Jehoiakim's government was evil and corrupt, well, Jehoiakim will die during the first Babylonian siege. If Judah's society privileges the wealthy, Babylon will drain some of that economic inequality away by taking tribute. If Judah's elites oppress, many of those same officials will be among the first captives taken away to Babylon. There are potential answers in this mess to what was ailing Habakkuk's nation – but Judah can either seize the solution or resist until more radical treatments are required. Sadly, she picked what was behind Door #2 again and again.

God's word about raising up the Chaldeans was an astounding message to Judah's scoffers, a call to respond to a God dreadfully and wonderfully at work in a world beyond their borders, in a way that shook their safety but would be made good in time. I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet – I cannot say if, twenty-one years ago, God was working a dreadful wonder in what happened, with a similar message for America's scoffers. But while I may not be a prophet, I am a preacher of the gospel. And in those Gospel books, I read how Jesus began among his own disciples to teach about God's dreadful wonder whereby he'd be rejected and killed and rise again (Mark 8:31). In response to that, just as Judah's scoffers wouldn't believe if told, Jesus' own disciples didn't believe when told (Mark 8:32). Jesus comes across as plenty disappointed when Peter tries to rebuke him. He points out: “You are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man. … If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:33-34).

It was a dark image, the cross. To Jewish eyes, crucifixion was a kind of penalty earned by magicians, bandits, and blasphemers. To Roman eyes, crucifixion was a tool of the state for making an example of criminals and rebellious slaves. To think of a cross as a pathway to wisdom was repulsive and nonsensical, “for the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing..., a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23). This word of the cross – that a man crucified by Rome as a criminal has thereby been qualified to rise from the dead, present himself as God, invite us to follow him to the cross, and pledge to return to rule the world – is certainly not a word that anybody expected. Even Jesus' first disciples didn't expect the crucifixion although they were told; and when it happened, they were as devastated and traumatized by it as those who watched the towers fall. So too, its preaching was offensive to the worldviews of Jew and Gentile alike. To Gentiles, it required accepting that the LORD God of Israel – not Mars or Marduk, nor Nero nor Nebuchadnezzar – turned the wheels of history, and that the cross of Christ was the crux around which it turns. To Jews, it meant admitting a liberty greater than the Law had come, injustice inverted in the curse of a cross, and that persecutors as pagan as Nabopolassar could be washed and welcomed in to the new Israel of God.

With a message so surprising, devastating, and offensive, it's no wonder that Paul ended a sermon by quoting God's words to Habakkuk as a warning: “Beware, therefore, lest what is said in the Prophets should come about: 'Look, you scoffers, be astounded and perish, for I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you'” (Acts 13:40-41). The word of the cross foretold for them a dreadful wonder: that God's work for their hope and their future passed through the cross, was shaped like a cross. And so to us now. We live beneath the dreadful wonder of the cross, and God yet makes the cross manifest in his Church in ways that often strike the world, and ourselves, as dreadful: lukewarm water, sticky oil, fragile bread, stinging wine, repetitive words, confessed sins, wounded bodies, tear-stained cheeks, dreamy hopes. The gospel can be frightful and devastating and offensive and laughable, to those whose mindset is shaped by the things of man. “But to us who are being saved, it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Where the cross confronts us with a dreadful wonder here and now, will we scoff? Will we sidestep? Or will we seek salvation? Let us not shy away from the wonder that God has chosen to give salvation such a dreadful shape as a cross, and that he unexpectedly founds his Church nowhere else than on this. Amen.

Sunday, September 4, 2022

Questioning God

What an exhausting day it's been. A young man kneels on his bed in an apartment beside the court of the House of the LORD. Not just an exhausting day – an exhausting few years. A Levite singer and temple prophet, he became old enough for his ministry during the reign of King Josiah, that shining star who devoted his life to the cause of reforming Judah into a God-loving nation once again, the nation she'd promised to be in the days of Moses. When the high priest stumbled across the ancient Book of the Covenant in the Temple archives and had it read to the king, it changed everything. Truly “there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses” (2 Kings 23:25). It was a privilege to begin singing in the Temple choir, even playing in the Temple orchestra, during his days.

But then, not long after that start, Josiah rode out to battle – this was a couple years ago – gone to stop the Egyptians from coming to the rescue of the collapsing might of hateful Assyria. Josiah had planted himself firmly in the path of the steamroller – the son of David, full of David's faith, facing a fearsome new Goliath. And the Goliath of Egypt squashed this would-be David in an instant. A chariot hauled the cold corpse of the king back to Jerusalem amid gushing tears. It was a horrible tragedy. No sooner was he buried than popular momentum seized on Josiah's fourth son Shallum, age 23, hailing him as the rightful heir – he was a young man truly committed to his father's legacy of reform and holiness. The priests anointed Shallum. The young Levite singer remembered hearing the lovely choir sing during Shallum's enthronement as King Jehoahaz.

But just a few months later, Egypt rolled back the way they'd come. The Pharaoh summoned Jehoahaz to a talk – and promptly kidnapped him. That, said the infamous prophet Jeremiah, more than Josiah's death even, was something to cry about (Jeremiah 22:10). In his place, Pharaoh handpicked his older half-brother, Josiah's elder son Eliakim, and forced Judah to install him on the throne of David instead. Eliakim, age 25, was anointed; he sat down and lived from then on as King Jehoiakim. And Jehoiakim was nothing like his father. He was a slave to the Egyptians, and taxed the people heavily to pay heavy tribute to Pharaoh. “And what he did was evil in the sight of the LORD, according to all that his fathers had done” (2 Kings 23:37). His example was infectious.

That winter, our young Levite singer watched as Jeremiah stormed through the gate and into the Temple court, interrupting their songs to tell them not to trust in the Temple's holy privileges to keep them safe from harm. “Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail! Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods you haven't known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say 'We are delivered!', only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, says the LORD!” (Jeremiah 7:8-11). Oh, the people were furious! The priests and the temple prophets and singers mobbed him, threatening to lynch him. But a few elders intervened and won Jeremiah back his life. Our young Levite had himself been incensed and unsettled that day, maybe. But the past couple years had proven Jeremiah right, 100% right. Just a few short moments of Jehoiakim's rule had been enough to bring Josiah's legacy crashing down like a sandcastle in a whirlwind.

Day in and day out, the Levite singers sang at the morning and the evening sacrifice in choir. And in between, as he walked the temple courts during his division's shift of duty, he sang at the personal sacrifices people brought to the priests. For his work was that of the sons of Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun, whom David had long ago assigned to “prophesy with lyres, with harps, and with cymbals” (1 Chronicles 25:1). And so this Levite singer was a temple prophet. He listened, day after day, as people led their offerings to the slaughter, sometimes begging God for forgiveness and help, sometimes rendering an empty gesture in the blood of beasts. As a temple prophet, some of the people came to him, needing advice, hoping he might find them a word from the LORD in his holy courts. More often than not, he was flummoxed, anxious, at a loss, and it tore him up inside, hoping he was making a difference. But he also listened behind the scenes as the priests grew more corrupt, mocking the people once they were out of earshot. He listened behind the scenes as his fellow temple prophets sang bawdy tunes and chased pretty girls when their wives weren't looking. He listened as the other teachers swept that Book of the Covenant under the rug. And he listened as people brought stories of justice thwarted, of judges bribed by inducement and influence. He played them songs to soothe their wounded spirits, he talked with them and tried to get them the word they needed for comfort and direction, but it was all so frustrating. So our young Levite singer kneels now on his bed. He's bottled this up long enough.

As best as we can guess from the clues we're given, this is the canvas on which this book was painted. Such a young Levite singer may have lived through and witnessed all these things – and Habakkuk may have been that very man. That, at least, is our best guess as to who Habakkuk was, since his book tells us nothing about him outright, but only hints from its style and the circumstances it portrays. So Habakkuk was probably that Levite singer, that temple prophet, in the days of young King Jehoiakim, hearing the preaching of the perennially unpopular Jeremiah, frustrated with all the behind-the-scenes corruption he's seeing and the stories of woe he's hearing and the burdensome struggle to come up with something to say in the midst of it.

What is it Habakkuk says he's noticing? He says, “Torah is paralyzed” (Habakkuk 1:4a). It's numbed, it's not moving, it's ineffective. Josiah's great recovery of the full Torah, the complete Law of Moses, has ground to a halt. King Josiah had brought the nation back to a strict adherence to God's instructions on how his people were to live. But now it's back gathering dust again. Those who remember it have missed the point, missed the heart of God laid bare in it (cf. Jeremiah 2:8). Where it's being taught, it's being widely mistaught (cf. Jeremiah 8:8). It isn't being used rightly, isn't being heard rightly, isn't being given a chance to bear fruit. And Habakkuk may even wonder how it could be that Josiah's reform could be so quickly snatched away from the hearts of a whole nation – why it is that God's Law didn't revolutionize their culture so that it stuck. (Sound familiar?)

Habakkuk adds that “destruction and violence are before me” (Habakkuk 1:3c). People are getting violent in those streets. Instead of loving their neighbor, they're laying their neighbor low with fists and daggers. There's bloodshed and persecution in the streets, where all these things were held in check just a few years ago. But so suddenly, things have gotten riotous out there. Naturally, “strife and contention arise” (Habakkuk 1:3d). The victims of this violence and this mayhem turn to the court system, seeking judgment from the priests and from the other appointed judges, so that they can be made whole. But just as often, it's the victimizers seeking to sue the victims. And “justice goes forth perverted” (Habakkuk 1:4d) – or, sometimes, “justice never goes forth” at all (Habakkuk 1:4b). These judges, some of whom were appointed under King Josiah, have let loose their old principles and become unscrupulous. As Jeremiah likes to say, “They have grown fat and sleek, they know no bounds in deeds of evil; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy” (Jeremiah 5:28).

And it all reminds Habakkuk of nothing so much as the stories handed down from the days of Moses. For when Moses was still an exile from his people, a cruel new Pharaoh rose to power, and “the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help..., and God heard their groaning, and... God saw the people of Israel, and God knew” (Exodus 2:23-25). Now, with King Jehoiakim bowing to Pharaoh all over again, it felt as though they were all re-enslaved to Egypt – or, worse, that the people of Judah had become petty pharaohs to one another. Well, if the children of Israel cried out for help then, Habakkuk cried out for help now (Habakkuk 1:2a). And he had been! But what frustrated him was that, if in those days it was said that God heard their groaning, now it seemed to Habakkuk like God was refusing to hear (Habakkuk 1:2b). And whereas in those days God saw their affliction and cared, now it seems that God “idly looks at wrong” (Habakkuk 1:3b), making Habakkuk himself look at it too, forever seeing and forever helpless to stop seeing (Habakkuk 1:3a).

So Habakkuk is frustrated. People have been coming to him with all their problems, and it's only made him sad and angry and confused. God should bring Jehoahaz back from Egyptian captivity to retake David's throne and be their savior from themselves – shouldn't he? Or is there another plan waiting in the wings? The trouble is, nothing's happening. Every day, Habakkuk hears more words of wrath and woe. Every day, Habakkuk walks the courts and the streets, seeing the battered and bruised bodies of the broken. And in the night he shouts at God about this violence and injustice, and it seems like the heavens above are nothing but a vacant smile over a bloody earth. And to Habakkuk, who's grown up dreaming what it would've been like to stand with Moses as the seas parted and salvation shone forth, this tolerance is intolerable – and, more than that, indecipherable.

So Habakkuk sings his questions before the LORD. “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you 'Violence!', and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity? And why do you idly look at wrong?” (Habakkuk 1:2-3). Or, in other words: Why are you watching this and not getting mad like I am? Why are you forcing me to watch this if there's nothing I can do? How long are you going to keep ignoring my prayers? How long will you refuse to be the same God you were when Moses cried out at the shore of the sea? What's the explanation for this strange behavior? What's the plan moving forward? Or is there even a plan? Is this just it? And what does that say about everything else?

That's what's on Habakkuk's mind – and not just his, but as a temple prophet, he's being a voice for the people, for his people and for us. And Habakkuk's questions are good questions. Hopefully they'll meet with some good answers. But we'll look for answers another week. For now, we're yielding Habakkuk and his complaints and his questions the floor. Because, to keep things simple, there's just one point we want to see today – and it's that Habakkuk's encounter with God, a real encounter with God, begins from the tough questions.

See, people have questions. That's only natural. It is natural to have questions. Inquiring minds want to know. People have a natural hunger and thirst for knowledge – God gave that to us – and, while certain forms of that hunger and thirst can become disordered, that hunger and thirst is meant to express itself in questions. Some of our questions are pretty mundane. Why is the sky blue? What are things made of? What brings us back to the earth when we jump? What will tomorrow bring? Some of our questions are scriptural and spiritual. What does this verse mean? What happened to make them write this? What does this say God is like? How can we, how should we, live these words? And some of our questions are deep and existential. Who am I? Am I being who I'm supposed to be? Why does this hurt so much? Where is God when bad things happen? Does he hear?

There are some real strengths in this movement called Evangelicalism, which our church here is defined by – (it's in the name, after all) – a passion for souls, a dream for a changed world, a commitment to the good news. But there are also some real practical weaknesses that, in many cases, can become fatal flaws. And one of those weaknesses, often a fatal flaw, is that Evangelicals can be very uncomfortable with questions. We tend not to like it when people ask us tough questions, and we aren't often willing to admit that we have real questions that can't just be waved away or kept forever on the back burner. That goes double for challenging, emotionally charged questions. This is a deep flaw that bubbles up from certain weaknesses in our vision.

But it has consequences. I've lost track of how many people I've known in my life who grew up in churches not so different from this one, or the one down the street, or the one you grew up in, and who then left – sometimes plunging into serious spiritual ruin – and it stemmed, at least partly, from them having had questions that they didn't feel they were allowed to ask in their church. In high school, I had a few close atheist friends, and some had been raised in churchgoing families. But they had questions. Uh-oh: Their churches didn't like that, or their parents didn't like that. Questions were disruptive. Questions were unhealthy. That, at least, was the impression they got from how their questioning little minds were treated. And the response made them view Christianity as all about suppressing questions instead of taking them seriously, about insisting on answers that didn't always add up. So they deconstructed it. They cobbled together their own answers. And they lost God.

Then, when I was in college, for a while I met with a group of Jehovah's Witnesses. In getting to know them, I got to know their stories. One of them told me how he grew up Methodist, but as time went on, he had a lot of questions about the Bible and his church's teachings. According to him, the pastor of his church wasn't happy to hear questions, and told him to just believe and not worry about it. So he left the church (which, he said, didn't bother his pastor at all), and a few years later he fell in with Jehovah's Witnesses, who claimed they had all the nice, simple answers that tied everything up neatly. And that was that. So now he has a Christ who isn't God.

Ever since then, I've met plenty of people who, their questions stifled, have left churches or left Christ. And I've also met plenty of people who, afraid of their own questions, have stifled themselves and gutted a God-given generator of growth in their lives. Desperate not to get dirty wrestling with what's raw and real, contenting themselves with cliches, some have seemed to domesticate the gospel or even infantilize their souls. And so they build walls around the hurt in their lives, and sing saccharine songs about happiness, and steer clear of parts of the Bible that risk confusing them.

But that could never have been Habakkuk's story. If he was a temple singer, then day in and day out he was plucking the strings of his lyre and belting out the lyrics to the psalms. And so many psalms asked questions – sometimes the very same questions that were on his mind, too. “Why, O LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1). “Why have you forgotten me?” (Psalm 42:9). “Why have you rejected me?” (Psalm 43:2). “How long will you be angry with your people's prayers?” (Psalm 80:4). “When will you judge those who persecute me?” (Psalm 119:84). Those kinds of things were part of the public worship ministry that Habakkuk already had. So for him, it was natural – perfectly natural – to open a dialogue with God by asking those same hard questions. Habakkuk felt no need to pull his punches. Whether answers would come, whether he could recognize them if they did – that's for another day. But today, says Habakkuk, is a day for asking questions, a day for asking God the toughest questions that are on his mind and heart.

Nor are these questions just requests for information. They're implicit challenges. Habakkuk could only find satisfaction in three ways. The first is for God to end the wait and take action right away. If Habakkuk asks, “How long?”, and then morning dawns and Jehoiakim's in jail and justice is restored, well, that'd settle these questions well enough for Habakkuk's taste. The second way is for God to explain the wait. If Habakkuk asks, “Why?”, and then a voice from heaven whispers the secret counsels of God, and now Habakkuk can follow the logic and piece together the puzzle and appreciate the strategy that's in play, that would satisfy Habakkuk. And the third way is for God to insist on the wait, but to do so in that familiar, trustworthy voice that allows us to settle down more comfortably with our thorniest questions and cohabit there with them in peace.

But more on that another week. Habakkuk's questions are implicit challenges. But questioning God, in the sense of asking challenging questions, is a different thing than calling God into question. Habakkuk questions, he questions from the depth of his discomfort and confusion, but he doesn't cross the line into calling God into question – he doesn't approach God with an air of defiance or fundamental mistrust. Often, the Pharisees and Sadducees called Christ into question, trying to trap him, trying to use their questions as a way of seizing power over him and over popular perceptions of him. That was bad questioning, and so after he answered, it's no shock we read that “after that, no one dared to ask him any more questions” (Mark 12:34).

But Habakkuk's questions aren't like those. His are sincere questions that come from a humble yet hurting heart – a good place for questions to come from. Habakkuk is a fine and fair model of how to question God – again, not calling God into question, but asking him the tough questions, and listening in humble hope. I think Habakkuk might've gotten on very well with the man in the Gospels who, in crisis, cried out to Jesus: “I believe – help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). That's what Habakkuk's questions are all about: “Help thou mine unbelief!”

If we're honest, we're in that same boat. There's a lot you don't know. And like Habakkuk in the temple courts, I can try to help sometimes, but there's a lot I don't know either. In those holes and cracks in our knowledge, questions will naturally form – some mundane, some scriptural, some existential. Some will be emotional and challenging, getting to the hearts of our joy and our pain. But we do ourselves and the world a disservice when we don't seek help for our questions, and when we're impatient with the questions of others. Are you troubled? You can go ahead and say that. Are you disturbed? Don't bottle it up, let it out. Are you perplexed? In a world like this, it's hard not to be. Are you confused? You can lay your questions before the Lord.

If there's one lesson to learn from Habakkuk's first verses, it's that God's temple is not a question-free zone – not in the initial encounter. God's temple is meant to be a space where hard, raw questions can be given voice; where we can wrestle openly with angels in the night; where we can sing not to cover our pain but to convey our pain; where we can seek the light of his understanding and the wealth of his wisdom. Because God is big enough. He's big enough for our concerns, our challenges, our confusion. If he can face a cross, he can face a question. And he did. So he does. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

The Point of It All

From the shade of his leafy hut, the prophet morosely and absent-mindedly snacked on a handful of dates as he took in his hateful westward view, in which the great pagan city Nineveh, for a moment delivered from disaster, sat front and center. When we left Jonah last week, his preaching had – much to his displeasure – resulted in a reformation of Nineveh's whole way of life, and he'd realized that the LORD had opted to mercifully spare them as a result – a decision that not only threatened Jonah's own reputation, not only diluted Israel's privileges under the covenant by sharing them with others, but even spelled doom for Israel's future and made hay of any hope of living in a fair world where long-standing habits have real consequences. And so Jonah was furious, looked on divine mercy as a great evil, and fumed a complaint at the LORD for being the same God he'd described himself as so long ago to Moses. And where Moses had interceded and laid his life on the line to win mercy for Israel because of those words, now Jonah wanted to lay his life on the line to win judgment for Nineveh in defiance against those same words that were the foundation of his very own existence.

For just that reason, Jonah had cut the LORD off in mid-conversation. Questioned by God about his hotly burning anger, Jonah had silently walked east from the city and sat down on the ground to watch Nineveh. Jonah intended to coerce the LORD into making a choice: either Nineveh dies, or Jonah dies. Jonah knew the LORD had already shown mercy and compassion to Nineveh; he wanted the LORD to change his mind, to take back the mercy, to pour out wrath instead. Maybe it'd happen because Nineveh would quickly revert to their old ways, and the LORD would promptly reactivate his threat and act right away. Or maybe it'd happen because, no matter what Nineveh did, the LORD would rather keep his prophet than some foreign city. Whatever the reason, Jonah aimed to move the LORD to take back mercy and pour out judgment on the city instead.

And to that end, when Jonah picked his spot east of Nineveh, where he could imagine far-off Israel distantly in the background behind the hateful city, Jonah built himself a shelter – and not just any shelter, but a hut or booth called in Hebrew a sukkah, the kind they had to live for seven days every autumn as part of the Feast of Booths. It was how Moses and their ancestors had lived at times in the desert, and they went back to them each year as a reminder of how the LORD had protected them. Indeed, after Jonah's day, a later prophet named Isaiah would set out a hope that, when Jerusalem was finally cleansed of sin, the LORD would restore his desert presence of cloud by day and fire by night, and so “there will be a booth” – or sukkah“for shade by day from the heat and for a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain” (Isaiah 4:6). It was just such a booth that Jonah built for shade by day from the heat – even though a sukkah by definition has to leave some gaps in the palm-leaf ceiling to see the sun and stars through. In building it, Jonah was silently calling on the LORD to protect him – just as he protected Moses in the desert, which is how Jonah still sees himself. Besides, the feast when they built these booths was a harvest festival – and it was high time to put the sickle in Nineveh, if you asked Jonah.

So Jonah has issued an ultimatum. He's cut the prayer lines to the LORD. And the LORD is looking down from heaven at this sad, bitter prophet, the very opposite of the heroes he's trying to emulate. Jonah's no Moses. And Jonah's no Elijah. For although Elijah once sat down under a tree in the desert and prayed for death, Elijah did so in the face of persecution and weakness and was readily restored (1 Kings 19:4). Jonah needs to see that he's no Moses, and he's no Elijah – that instead, he's a lot more like the city he so quickly condemns. Perhaps a demonstration is in order, to illustrate a powerful lesson.

The next thing we're told is that “the LORD God appointed a qiqayon and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be shade for his head, to deliver him from his evil” (Jonah 4:6). Just like in Genesis 2, when we read how “the LORD God” made a garden grow in Eden, now “the LORD God” makes a plant grow right over Jonah and his flimsy little hut. And the kind of plant – well, the book calls it a qiqayon, that's its name. And people have had lots of guesses what a qiqayon is. In the early church, we even hear of riots breaking out in churches over different guesses for this plant! So please, let's stay calm as I hazard a guess that it's the castor bean plant. And where its name in Hebrew points us back to where the LORD delivered Jonah by having him vomited out by the great fish, now God delivers Jonah again by assigning him a castor bean plant – and even back then, castor oil was a popular laxative. Anybody wonder if the LORD's hinting something about Jonah's attitude?

I hope none of your parents fed you a spoonful of castor oil as punishment or medicine when you were kids. But Jonah needs a dose of something. And so God, kindly and maybe a bit sarcastically, appoints this plant and makes it grow up overnight over Jonah and his hut. With its big leaves and rapid growth, it compensates for any gaps in Jonah's roof – especially as his palm leaves dry out – and gives Jonah's head some much-needed shade. That way, God gave the plant to deliver Jonah from his evil – meaning, at one level, his misery in the heat. But at another level, the plant's goal is to deliver Jonah from the evil in his heart.

Okay, so now Jonah is under some extra shade. And Jonah is thrilled! Jonah is so happy! We read that “Jonah rejoiced with great joy for the qiqayon” (Jonah 4:6). As greatly miserable as Jonah was over God's mercy for Nineveh, that's the extent to which Jonah's celebrating this plant. He's never seen anything so beautiful as this one plant! He wonders if maybe the plant is a sign, a sign that God so regards his life that he's made a choice of Jonah over Nineveh. But regardless, Jonah feels so much more comfortable under this nice plant. And so from the deepest anger and depression, Jonah turns on a dime to ecstatic glee. Jonah feels emotions, and he feels them intensely and shallowly, with barely any ability to self-regulate. And you know what that reminds me of? The years I worked at a daycare, with a class full of Kindergartners, first-graders, and second-graders. Some of them actually seemed more mature than Jonah, come to think of it. And this whole story makes a lot more sense if God is looking down at Jonah and seeing him as a spoiled child in need of a basic lesson about life.

Jonah, this overgrown toddler of a man, is immensely content with the leafy plant shading him and his hut from the heat outside, even though Jonah had just the day before been filled with a greater heat of unrighteous anger on the inside. And so a day goes by, in which Jonah watches Nineveh to his west, but in luxurious comfort and confident presumption. But the lesson is not done. For while Jonah might be delivered from the physical evil of misery, he isn't delivered from the inner evil of his immaturity and pride. Something else must be done.

And so the next verse says, “And God appointed a worm as morning dawned the next day, and it attacked the qiqayon so that it dried up” (Jonah 4:7). Just as the plant had grown up in a night, now a hungry worm came to chew through its stem, and when Jonah wakes up, he's going to find that the mercy of the plant sheltering him has been withdrawn. And it's all thanks to a simple worm – a symbol of death, since ancient Hebrew didn't have different words for a fruit grub and a maggot. First, God had given Jonah this plant, a merciful shade and a vivid symbol of life. Now, God's sent a symbol of death to take it away as quickly as it came. It's sobering.

But what's all this getting at? Well, here's another clue, and bear with me here. All throughout the book so far, the author has been very careful about what names he gives to God. When God is interacting with Jonah, God has always been referred to as 'LORD,' in all-caps (as our English Bibles print it). That's his covenant name, the name he revealed and explained to Moses from the burning bush. So everywhere the book is talking about how Jonah and God interact, it uses the name 'LORD.' But everywhere the book talks about God relating to non-Israelites, like the sailors on the ship or the people of Nineveh? There, God isn't referred to as 'LORD' but as 'God,' a more general name, like in Genesis 1 when God was creating the whole world and not focusing in on any one part of it. And this is a consistent pattern throughout the whole book! Except... here, God is dealing with Jonah, and the author calls him 'God,' not 'LORD.' Why? Because Jonah is being treated to a taste of what it's like to be a Ninevite – and not just a Ninevite, but a Ninevite in the kind of world Jonah wishes this were.

See, what does Jonah want? He wants Nineveh, which has received mercy, to have that mercy taken away. So God puts Jonah in Nineveh's shoes. Jonah gets mercy: a plant that shades his head and delivers him from evil. And then Jonah sees that mercy abruptly die, just as he wants to see Nineveh's mercy abruptly die. God is giving Jonah a chance to understand how somebody in Nineveh would feel if God acts like Jonah wants him to. The mercy has now been eaten up by the deadly little worm.

But Jonah barely has any time to grieve the loss of protection before he begins to suffer from it. The next words we read, we hear that “it came to pass that, when the sun arose, God appointed a cutting east wind” (Jonah 4:8) – from the east, just as day begins, God assigns the east wind to sweep in from the desert. It's dry, hot, full of desert sand. This is no pleasant wind. With the plant cut off from its roots, this wind will make the leaves fall right off. If there's still anything left to the hut's roof, this wind is cutting enough to blow the leaves away. Coming from the east, it comes from behind Jonah – it hits him before it ever gets to Nineveh's city walls.

In Exodus, it's this same “east wind” that God sends to part the sea for Moses (Exodus 14:21). But the point is that Jonah is no Moses. This same east wind is the one the LORD uses throughout the Old Testament as a tool of judgment. Jonah's young friend Hosea compares Assyria to the east wind that blows against Israel (Hosea 12:1). Hosea hears the LORD saying: “Compassion is hidden from my eyes. Though he may flourish among his brothers, the east wind – the wind of the LORD – shall come, rising from the desert, and his fountain shall dry up, his spring shall be parched, it shall strip his treasury of every precious thing” (Hosea 13:14-15).

Before Nineveh could become the east wind (as Hosea predicted it would), Jonah wanted Nineveh to be blown down by the east wind. And Jonah is getting a taste of what it's like to live in Jonah's world. So then, as Jonah feels this dry east wind cutting into him, “the sun attacked Jonah's head so that he wilted, and he asked his soul to die” (Jonah 4:8). Jonah thinks he's Moses, he thinks he's Elijah. Well, Elijah called down fire on soldiers who came to arrest him (2 Kings 1:9-12). That's what Jonah wishes he could to to Nineveh. So Jonah gets a taste of the heat of the sun becoming a fire from heaven. And the fiery sun attacking Jonah's head returns him to misery, and now that Jonah's so uncomfortable, he wants to quit on life.

Now, Jonah could've escaped by walking back into the city, knocking on any Ninevite's door, and asking for refuge. But Jonah, faced with discomfort, is angry enough to die. Jonah's anger is looking a lot less principled and a lot more petty in the bright light of the sun. So Jonah repeats to himself what he'd said earlier to the LORD: “It is better for me to die than for me to live” (Jonah 4:8). And that marks the perfect place for God to try to resume the conversation that Jonah had cut off earlier. God asks Jonah, “Is it good for you to be angry about the qiqayon?” Jonah says yes: “It is good for me to be angry, even to death!” (Jonah 4:9). Jonah got attached to that plant; it's unfair for the plant to die so soon, so suddenly! Jonah doesn't want to live in a world where God gives life and yanks it away so soon, where God's mercy can dry up and die for no reason!

And now God has Jonah right where he wants him. And so, for the first time since this object lesson began, the author refers to God as “LORD again – Jonah is stepping back out of Nineveh's shoes, and the LORD wants to give him a different perspective on what just happened. Now Jonah has to understand, not just how it would feel to be Nineveh in Jonah's world, but how it would feel to be the LORD in Jonah's world. And just as Jonah launched this debate with a 39-word speech in Hebrew, and kept matching the LORD word-for-word, it's the LORD's turn to balance the scales by wrapping things up in thirty-nine words.

Here's what the LORD says, as he drives his point home: “You've had compassion for the plant, for which you didn't work, nor did you make it great, which as a son of a night came to be and which as a son of a night died” (Jonah 4:10). It's as if the LORD's telling him: “Jonah, just look how emotionally invested you got in that plant. Take a good look at your intense feelings about the plant and what happened to it. And then look at the facts. It was a plant. Its life spanned a single day, from the mystery of one night to the mystery of the next night – sprouting and growing up out of nowhere by my grace, and dying out of nowhere by my judgment. And you had no role in its life. You couldn't be proud, you had no responsibility for it. You put no work or effort into its creation. It grew so great with zero input from you, Jonah. And yet you're upset – you're thinking that, if you'd been in my shoes, you would've loved it and spared it. Oh, that's what you think! But would you really?”

For now the LORD questions him. If that's how Jonah felt about the plant, how must the LORD feel about Nineveh? All that, Jonah, “and I shouldn't have compassion on Nineveh, the great city, in which are more than twelve myriads of humans who don't know between their right hand and their left hand – and beasts aplenty?” (Jonah 4:11). What's the LORD saying? “Nineveh is as great among cities as the qiqayon was among plants. Is it a faceless monster to you, Jonah? Not to me! My Israel (which I showed mercy again and again) had twelve tribes, but Nineveh is more than twelve ten-thousands of human lives. And where your Israel receives my patience when they sin against what they know, these people in Nineveh never had the advantage of being instructed by Moses and the prophets, to teach them left from right. Morally, they're little more than children – and are you, Jonah, any less childish? As if that weren't enough, didn't you hear their bulls and horses and sheep mooing and neighing and bleating their mournful prayers to my name? Can you even count them all, Jonah? And yet each one, even the feeblest little lamb, is a higher and more precious form of life than that plant over which you've spilled your hot, salty tears and your hot, salty words. Aren't they a pitiful sight? Jonah, you've shown that you're capable of emotionally investing in and compassionately pitying a simple plant that you didn't make, didn't grow great, and didn't know for more than a day of hopes and dreams. So how can you begrudge me my right, as the Author and Lover of life, to pityingly spare this city I've known and grown?”

And on that question, the book's credits roll. We're left with silence, with a void. Because it's up to us to hear the LORD's words and speak for Jonah now. Jonah's opening complaint, the two halves of their exchange, and now the LORD's clinching question – each allotted the same number of words to make their case – are finished. And with the LORD and Jonah having both spoken their piece, the author invites us to judge for ourselves. Will Jonah continue to resist? Does Jonah have a comeback? Or does God's analogy expose Jonah's heart wide open – and is Jonah, at last, delivered from the evil of pride that lurks there? Can Jonah now grow up? Elijah heard the LORD's double question and returned, renewed, to make disciples. Now Jonah has heard the LORD's double question, and is faced with the choice: Will the Prophet Jonah make of it what the Prophet Elijah did?

As for the Ninevites, Jonah was probably right about one thing: their repentance wouldn't last. But even so, the threat Jonah had cried out in her streets wouldn't immediately reactivate. God really had spared Nineveh, had given Nineveh a reprieve rooted in sincere compassion. And so God had somewhat reset the clock. For God had purposes for Nineveh. Less than forty years after this story draws to its close, armies are going to march out from Nineveh and wipe Israel off the map, blowing in like the east wind. Nineveh's reprieve will last for generations. But not forever. Nearly a century and a half after Jonah, in 612 BC, finally Nineveh's reversion to evil would catch up to her, and not all the excuses of ignorance and the beauties of life would stop judgment.

And yet Nineveh's story isn't done there, either. For over six centuries after Nineveh's destruction, God sent his Son into the world – an act of far greater compassion than his temporary sparing of Nineveh. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). Jesus Christ laid down his life as an act of compassion, and as he hung on that cross, the face of every man, woman, and child in this great city surely passed through his mind. Like a plant cut down at the prime of its greenness, Jesus died. But he rose from the dead to flourish again, and be a shade to deliver all the world from evil, if only we gather under him. He sent out his twelve apostles to the world's myriads to invite them under Christ's compassionate shade, and as this good news was relayed from land to land, it reached the sons and daughters of Assyria. Within a few generations at most, the gospel had begun to root itself in the ruins of Nineveh. Nineveh became a seat of a bishop, a successor carrying out the apostles' mission in that place. For in the wake of judgment centuries before, the LORD's compassion persisted in pursuing the city. He was simply “patient toward them, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

When the winds of judgment were blowing in, Jonah could point to the direction they came from. Jonah was of the opinion he had God all figured out, had analyzed the balance of mercy and judgment. But Jonah couldn't guess he'd learn how Nineveh felt. Jonah couldn't guess he'd learn how God felt. And Jonah definitely couldn't see the gospel coming. For when Jesus ascended into heaven, he poured down his Holy Spirit in the sight of a crowd that included Jews descended from the Israelites carried back to Nineveh (Acts 2:9). And this Spirit “blows where it wishes,” Jesus said, “and you hear its sound, but you don't know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8). The Spirit is a wind who preserves his mystery. But the Spirit descended to fulfill the words of Joel that God would “pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17; cf. Joel 2:29). And now the mysterious, merciful Spirit of God blows in us, flourishes in us. We, far more than Jonah, have been given the “mind of Christ” to appreciate the LORD's compassion (1 Corinthians 2:16), and so to be truer heirs of Moses and Elijah in our day and age as we gather to Christ (Mark 9:4). And so to the God who spares us and makes us grow up great in grace be all glory and honor; and may his Spirit blow us to see with his pitying eye and entrust to his wisdom each creature he has made – each human face and name, and all those beasts aplenty. Amen.