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Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Luke 11:27-54

This whole section, in a variety of ways, develops and explicates Jesus' words to the woman: "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!" Like every other generation, ours is tempted to make Christianity a matter of external obedience -- behavior modification, if you will. We strive to keep issues like repentance and law and righteousness outside our cores. As long as I can keep these things away from the deepest part of me, I can feel good about myself, to put it crassly. So we strive to be good, and we judge those who fall short in our eyes of what we think being good looks like. Please understand that this is not Christianity. It is what a friend of mine calls "the gospel of sin management." Every religion in the world practices some sort of sin management, and one of the first victims of Jesus' judgment is that he judges religion.

This is why so many supposedly Christian congregations are little more than feel-good institutions built on tribalism and shame. Tribalism because if we can make sure everyone who comes in is like us and behaves like us, we feel good. Shame because when someone breaks our boundaries, we first judge them, then gossip about them, then shun them, and finally exclude them. We are no better than the generation to which Jesus spoke, saying that the blood of all the prophets from Abel to Zechariah would fall on them. The prophets brought a message of heart transformation that impacted external actions. In other words, get right with God at your core and let him straighten out your works. But that message is too threatening to us because it demands that we stop seeing ourselves as already justified, we stop seeing ourselves as already "in."

Jesus makes a big deal of the example of Jonah. Consider that story for a moment. These days most of what's written about Jonah deals with its historicity. Could a large fish in fact swallow a man, and could a man live for three days inside a fish? That's the question that occupies us. So you can read about large groupers that have been found in the Mediterranean and apocryphal stories of sailors who were swallowed by this or that fish and later found alive. Our Enlightenment-bloated minds totally miss the point, just as Jesus' own generation did. If you read the story of Jonah carefully, it has little to do with the fish. The story is an indictment of the Israelites' own selfish attitudes toward other people, especially toward their enemies. Commanded by God to be a light to the people of Nineveh, Jonah flees the opposite direction. Corrected by God through storm and fish (and incidentally being a powerful witness to the sailors along the way) Jonah finally, reluctantly goes to Nineveh, preaches the worst sermon in history, and witnesses an amazing revival as the Assyrians turn en masse toward God. And Jonah is furious, because he knew this would happen. He knew God would find a reason to be merciful to these people Jonah hates so much.

The end of Jonah's story is rarely talked about, but it encapsulates the whole point. Jonah sits outside the city of Nineveh, hoping to watch the fire-and-brimstone show, but instead seeing God act in mercy. He's hot out there on the hillside in the sun, so he's deeply thankful when a vine grows up that provides shade for him. But then a cutworm comes along and kills the vine and it withers, taking away Jonah's shade, and he begins to curse because the vine is dead. God speaks to him and asks, are you angry for the vine? Yes, Jonah says, you bet I am, angry enough to die. God uses Jonah's (admittedly selfish) concern for the vine as a way to hopefully help Jonah understand that God is concerned for the people of Nineveh, and even for its cattle. You get the impression that the little mini-sermon God preaches at the end of the book probably flew right over Jonah's head. Jonah is stuck in his selfishness and tribalism. As long as he can keep viewing the Ninevites as the enemy, as bad, as shameful and deserving of punishment, he can feel good about himself. He's in, and the Assyrians are out.

Jesus confronts the people around him with this same kind of word. The Pharisees and lawyers (meaning, teachers of the law) were very skilled at evaluating their own conduct and the conduct of the people around them. They were the guardians of public morality. Jesus says, it's more than that. It's about the attitude of your heart. This at its core is what it means to "hear the word of God and keep it." The word of God calls us to see God alone as righteous, and us as sinful, broken people who need mercy. Those who know God and his loving character are not those who have somehow arrived so they can sit in judgment over others; rather, those who know God and his loving character become, in Martin Luther's words, like one beggar telling another where to find bread.

We always want to become the hero of the story. We want to be the Good Guy. But the gospel is that we are so far from that status, and Jesus alone is the Good Guy -- and his character is love. His character is mercy. That which reflects his character -- love, wholeness, self-sacrifice, inspiration, beauty -- is affirmed by his gospel. That which reinforces the brokenness, shame, and fear that opposes Jesus' love and mercy is condemned. All of this starts -- starts -- in the heart. Christianity is never a fake-it-till-you-make-it religion; it is a broken-hearted relationship with a loving Jesus in which he brings us to a healing and wholeness that is dependent not on our own behavior modification, but on his goodness and love.

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