Sunday, June 12, 2022

The Unavoidable God

He strolls into the port, knowing he's out of place. The Philistines gawk at this Israelite with mounds of food in tow. But he doesn't mind. He's in a hurry. Just days ago, he was on the job in Samaria. There he'd been sitting when, in the darkness of the night, he was awakened by a familiar and thrilling presence around him, beside him – even within him. His very bones had burned and tingled. The Word of the LORD was there. Jonah couldn't wait for more good news to announce to King Jeroboam. “Up!” said the Word – and Jonah sat up faster than if his bed were on fire. “Go...” said the Word – and Jonah reached for his cloak to dress for the day. “ Nineveh...” He froze in his tracks. Time slowed. His brain spun. His blood chilled. His heart pounded. The Word continued speaking, but Jonah was scarcely listening. His mind fixated on tracing the implications of that one word, 'Nineveh.' Soon he realized that the Word had finished talking, that God was awaiting a response. In silence, Jonah got dressed. As dawn broke, he hit the streets of Samaria, looking for someone to sell his house back in Gath-Hepher to. He was going to need his assets liquid. Tarshish was a long way away.

Now, what's going on here? The Word of the LORD explained to Jonah – whether or not he was listening – that the great city Nineveh needed to hear a message, because “their evil has come up to my face” (Jonah 1:2). For that reason, Jonah was to get up and go. Jonah does get up – so far, everything goes as the first-time reader can expect. But then come those next words: “to flee to Tarshish” (Jonah 1:3). Hey, Jonah, that's the wrong verb, that's the wrong noun. And just in case we missed it, the narrator underscores it: “away from the face of the LORD (Jonah 1:3). The Ninevites' evil had approached God's face; Jonah is moving in the opposite direction, avoiding God's face. This is, by the way, an expression we first meet in Genesis, when “Cain went out away from the face of the LORD (Genesis 4:16). Not a great role model to be picking, Jonah!

The narrator underscores it by repeating the phrase just a little bit further on: “He went down to Joppa” – that's a then-Philistine-controlled port town a little over 43 miles from Samaria – “and found a ship going to Tarshish” – that's a city in Spain, which had a strong trade relationship with the Phoenicians, and that's likely who's running the ship Jonah finds. “And he paid her wage and went down into her, to go with them to Tarshish – away from the face of the LORD (Jonah 1:3). Two key directions: 'away' and 'down.'

But what was Jonah really trying to do? He surely couldn't have been under the illusion that the LORD was just a local god, bound to the land of Israel but powerless in far-off Spain. Jonah himself is going to confess that the LORD “made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9). But to be a prophet was to have a position standing in front of the LORD's face – it was to be a herald employed by God's royal court. Jonah's staging a walk-out in protest. Jonah's point is to make himself unavailable and ineligible to fulfill God's call on his life. And he's not the first to want to turn down an assignment. When God called Moses, Moses peppered God with questions, doubted his prospects, and challenged his qualifications to the point where “the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses” (Exodus 4:14). When God called Gideon, Gideon made excuses and then launched a habit of requiring constant reassurances that God was who he said he was (Judges 6:15-17). Jonah doesn't do that – but only because Jonah won't engage at all. See, at least Moses and Gideon acknowledged what God was saying, took it seriously, and tried to respond to it. Jonah won't do that. Jonah knows he can't win the argument. So why play at all? Jonah disagrees so strenuously with God's plan – for reasons we'll explore in later weeks – that, rather than bring these fears and doubts and resentments out into the open before God's face where God can resolve them, Jonah would rather cling to his problems and keep them buried within. Jonah fears that confrontation.

So Jonah develops a strategy – and that strategy is to go incommunicado. It's to give God the silent treatment. It's to cut off communication, dodge the discussion, and hope that sooner or later God will just take the hint. So Jonah begins by disinheriting himself from the Promised Land where God had promised to specially dwell. He aims to leave the Promised Land behind. Secondly, along the way, Jonah avoids associating with people who might bring God into the conversation. Surely Jonah knew other believers. Hosea is just starting his ministry at this time, and if Jonah were willing to consider it, Hosea's hometown is more or less on the way to Nineveh. But Jonah dodges Hosea or anybody else who might remind Jonah he's a prophet. Thirdly, Jonah sets out to put maximum distance from his assigned destination. If God wants Jonah to walk the nearly 700 miles northeast from Samaria to Nineveh, Jonah is going to go a few thousand miles in the opposite direction, to the furthest place from Nineveh he can think of. And he's going to go by a boat which, once he's on it, Jonah will have no way to turn around – the perfect excuse if, once he's aboard, God starts hounding him. Jonah's goal here is to make it prohibitively inefficient for God to send him to Nineveh, thus forcing the mission to be scrapped.

But besides that, Jonah will go to even further extremes. In his disengagement with God, Jonah quits praying altogether. You'll notice that, on the ship, when all the sailors are praying to the different gods they serve, Jonah is asleep. When the captain begs Jonah to get up and pray, the reader expects a sentence where Jonah does that – but the action moves on without it happening (Jonah 1:6-7). Jonah's goal, in his disobedience and silence, is to render himself spiritually ineligible for the mission, to strip off enough qualifications that God wouldn't want him anyway. We find later that he's even already told the sailors that the point of his trip is to run away from the face of his God (Jonah 1:10). But then, not only that, Jonah urges them to make him a human sacrifice (Jonah 1:12). If nothing else will work, Jonah aims to make himself unavailable for his mission on grounds of death! Whatever it takes, he thinks, to quietly excuse himself from his call without having to talk to God about it first. As for how that works out for Jonah... well, for that, you might just have to read ahead. “If I take the wings of the morning” – or a Phoenician boat – “and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me” back toward Nineveh “and your right hand shall hold me” (Psalm 139:9-10). The bottom line is that Jonah is going to end up having that conversation. Jonah is going to find himself on the streets of the city he least wants to see. All of Jonah's tactics for avoiding God are going to fail, in the end. God is unavoidable.

In many ways, we stand closer to this God than Jonah ever did. Oh, Jonah heard his voice, Jonah came face-to-face with the discarnate Word. But we know the incarnate Word, for “in these last days, [the Father] has spoken to us by his Son..., through whom also he created the world” (Hebrews 1:2). We've received the Spirit of God in a way unavailable to Jonah, through a persistent indwelling. We now stand close enough to God's face to catch glimpses, not just of who God is from the outside, but on the inside. And we've seen that God's inner life is dynamic love, love as pure act, love acting between three persons defined by their relationships to one another: the Father who begets the Son, the Son who filiates from the Father; the Father and the Son who breathe forth the Spirit, the Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son. When we catch a glimpse of God's inner life, we behold God as the Trinity: one God, yes, but in three persons.

And the reason we ever finally got close enough to see and hear and believe and know this is because of Jonah's lesson: God is unavoidable. In the beginning, God the Father spoke his Wise Word and sent forth his enlivening Spirit, and out of nothing God made the world – and made us. This God, intimately present in our midst, had a calling on our lives from the start. Much as he told Jonah to get up and cry out, he told us to call out his name in friendship and to rise up in his unspoiled grace that perfected our nature, calling all creation to ascend with us into God's own glory. But then we tried to wrestle life out of creation rather than receive it from God the Holy Spirit. We tried to erase traces of the Word, of Wisdom, from our minds. We disinherited ourselves from the Father who made us. And as our hearts and minds grew dark, as we strayed into the deserts of bare existence, we fled away from the face of the LORD which we were unworthy to see directly. We ran further and further from our primeval calling, as Jonah fled from his.

But God proved unavoidable – so unavoidable, he'd spill his guts – his inner life – all over his creation to reach us. For the same Father who sent his Word to prophets like Jonah then sent this same Word into human flesh, by his Spirit uniting that Word to a complete human nature. And that Word-made-flesh is Jesus Christ. Jesus often described himself as 'sent,' as “the One whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world” (John 10:36). “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of the One who sent me” (John 6:38). “I was sent for this purpose: …to preach the good news of the kingdom of God” (Luke 4:43), “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). “The one who rejects me rejects the One who sent me” (Luke 10:16), but “whoever receives me receives the One who sent me” (Matthew 10:40). “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).

And so Jesus pursued the lost and hurting throughout Galilee and beyond during his earthly ministry, as he laid a foundation for the renewal of God's people. He was sent to the cross “to purify for himself a people for his own possession” (Titus 2:14). To that end, he even was sent to pursue the souls of the dead who'd died without seeing God's promises fulfilled. And surely the soul of Jonah was among those that waited in the underworld's darkness for the Light to dawn on them. Fulfilling his mission below, Jesus then rose from the dead in victory as the Life, pursuing his deflated disciples in the midst of their sorrow and perplexity. He was so unavoidable, even their locked doors couldn't keep him at bay.

Then, shortly after ascending into heaven, Jesus – the second person of the Trinity – poured out from the Father – the first person of the Trinity – the presence of the Holy Spirit – the third person of the Trinity – onto these disciples, this people, to bind them into a unity: one Body, one Temple, one Church. Jesus had foreshadowed that Pentecostal plan when he'd told them: “He whom God sent... gives the Spirit without measure” (John 3:34), “and when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8).

So the unavoidable Father sent his unavoidable Son, and once the Son had lifted up his head into heaven, he anointed his corporate Body left on earth with an unavoidable Spirit. For even the psalmist had said, half in lament, that the Holy Spirit is unavoidable: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your face?” (Psalm 139:7). Not to Tarshish, that's for sure. The Holy Spirit cannot be dodged, for “the Spirit blows where he wishes” (John 3:8). Personally distinct from the Father and the Son, but one God with the Father and the Son, the Spirit shares their divine unavoidability. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have proven themselves in salvation-history and in the Church's experience to be one unavoidable God in three persons – blessed Trinity!

And that all matters for us. Because just as Jonah was by God called and commanded, we together – and often we individually – are called and commanded. That call is, first and foremost, a call to God himself – to stand before his face, and not turn away from it. It's to allow God the Holy Spirit and his gifts, diffused throughout the Body of Christ, to build us up and lead us upward to our Head, who is God the Son, through whom we begin already to see God the Father. And that happens especially in our worship, in the great liturgies of the Church, in which we most become who we are. Worship is itself our first command. It's not just a time to refuel for our mission; it's what we're sent into existence itself to do and be. The first word of God to Jonah is the first word of God to us: “Up!” (Jonah 1:2). Lift up your hearts to the Lord from the altar! Behold the King in his beauty! Worship our God in his splendor and his glory!

To that end, the call we all share is also a call to a holy life – that is, a life rendered ready for heavenly realities. Again, that's what worship is meant to do – that's worship's secondary function, to expose us and shape us to the likeness of God in the company of his angels. But it also happens as we surrender to the unavoidable and relentless, though often quiet and resistible, work of the Holy Spirit in convicting us of sin and conforming us to the sanctity that flows down on the Body from Christ our Head – that “we all, with unveiled face, mirroring the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

But furthermore, we all share a call that sends us to the world. Jesus said that. Listen to his words: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). As Jonah was sent to great city Nineveh, so the Body of Christ is the Body of a Prophet sent to confront, inspire, and evangelize the City of Man. “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). “As you go, disciple all the nations” (Matthew 28:19). Jesus said these things, ultimately, to the Church as a whole. They pertained principally to the apostles, but the whole Church is apostolic. As individual parts of the Body of Christ, each of us has a somewhat different role to play in the overall mission on which the Church has been sent. But no part of the Body stands unrelated to the Body's mission. None of us stand outside it. None of us are uncalled.

And what is that mission, when it comes to the world? That mission, that sending, is to proclaim – in word and in deed – the Trinity as the God who pursues and saves us for the sake of inviting us to share the Divine Life by grace. The mission is to conform the world, wherever it's within our reach, starting with ourselves, to the image of the Trinity, because to say that God is a Trinity is ultimately to say that God is eternally and essentially, not just contingently and accidentally, Love. The mission is to announce this God to the world, and to urge the world to trust this God, be loyal to this God, be actively united to this God through the bridge that is the flesh of God in Jesus Christ. The mission is to invite the world to plunge into the face of the Spirit and Son and Father.

And in receiving this sending, we're told to “go into all the world,” each of us respectively as God leads us by his Spirit speaking to and through his Son's Body in the Father's name. Likely, for you to play your part in the Church's 'going into all the world,' it means for you to go intentionally into this neighborhood, the places where God has placed you. Unless God makes clear otherwise, your Nineveh is probably not so far nor so foreign as Jonah's was. The streets where you pursue your mission are sometimes the hallways of your own house, even, and the aisles in the grocery store, and the rows of chairs facing the concert stage at the park. But wherever God has assigned you, there you are sent in the name of the Triune God. You have a mission.

And in the end, we will find this God to be unavoidable. Jonah hoped that, with his various avoidance tactics, he could evade the uncomfortable conversation of actually discussing his call with the God who gave it. All his efforts to escape from reach, to silence his voice, to disqualify himself even unto death, were attempts to avoid God's face – to not have to meet God's gaze and lay out his fears and doubts and resentments in the open where God could openly overrule them and insist on the mission. But Jonah couldn't avoid that. Jonah was wrong. The very same tools Jonah threw up as obstacles – the boat, the waters it crossed, the winds filling the sails – God took up as tools to push Jonah to the point of confrontation. Jonah at last had to face his call, look God in the eye, and let his Yes be Yes or his No be No (cf. Matthew 5:37).

And so for us, and so for the world. The world – and often we ourselves – have, in one way or another, been fleeing toward our Tarshishes, deluding ourselves by whatever means necessary that we can evade the grave discomfort of God's face. The world – and again, too often it's us too – is bent on papering over the seriousness of God's call with polite pleasantries and paltry pleasures. But at the end, it's not us who have the luxury of fleeing away from the face of God. For “from his face... earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them..., and the sea gave up the dead who were in it, death and underworld gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done” (Revelation 20:11-13). On the last day, all from Nineveh to Tarshish and beyond will have that uncomfortable conversation with God. Either their Yes will be proven to have been Yes, or their No will be proven to have been No. But silence will be forbidden; avoidance will be impossible. So, as it's written, “see that you do not refuse him who is speaking! For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven” (Hebrews 12:25).

Thus, each one will finally have to confront the call on us all. You are “called... to repentance” (Luke 5:32). “You are called to belong to Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:6). You are “called to be saints” (Romans 1:7), “called into the fellowship of [God's] Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9). You are called to your place in the great liturgy, the worship of the church which is our first purpose and mission in existence. You are “called [to] the peace of Christ ruling in your hearts” (Colossians 3:15). You are “called” to “follow in his steps” of enduring suffering with patience and virtue (1 Peter 2:21). You are “called to freedom..., [to] through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13). You are “called... to a holy calling” (2 Timothy 1:9), to “be holy in all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:15). “You were called to the one hope that belongs to your call” (Ephesians 4:4), “a heavenly calling” (Hebrews 3:1), “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). And, Paul adds, “the calling of God” is “irrevocable,” unavoidable (Romans 11:29).

So then “let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned him and to which God has called him” (1 Corinthians 7:17). For this God has opened up his inner life, showing us Father and Son and Holy Spirit. He has spilled his inner life, his innards, his guts, out into the world he made. He has made himself unavoidable, though so often so unseen. May we turn our backs on Tarshish, admit God is blessedly unavoidable, and simply let our Yes be all Yes to this Triune God of Holy Love. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment